Having started to read Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World
again it now
occurs to me that the West has been redeemed by its pagan past.
All the theocracy,
intolerance and religious fundamentalism that blighted the Middle Ages
were ultimately purged by the lasting appeal of Hellenism. It seems that
whichever society finally established itself as the successor to the
ancients would come to dominate the world both culturally and
technologically, and there is no real reason why the ultimate inheritors
of the tradition of Reason should be the descendents of northern
barbarians and not those of Mediterranean Imperial citizens. (even ones
that ride camels). In the end it's about the nature of truth, and whether
scientific reasoning should be allowed to discover and propagate notions
that are independent of or even contradict revelation.
Al-Andalus had an eclectic
culture, not because a tolerant, reasonable, non-purist alternative is
embedded in Islam (and waiting to be woken up again) but because
medieval Spanish Muslims were sucked up by Aristotle and the Greek
In the end the open society
of Al-Andalus was not simply the victim of simple minded spear-wielding
Latins from the north. It was squeezed to death from both sides, as much
a victim of Almohad Quran-bashing righteousness before the Castillians
were even within striking range.
The intriguing thing about
the Hellenistic tradition (and perhaps one of the reasons that the
Muslim world ultimately found it indigestible) is that it contains
unresolved contradictions itself: Athens and Sparta, open and
closed, diversity and purity. This is the great yin-yang duel of
history; far more than church versus state, east versus west, Guelf
versus Ghiibelline, left versus right and other antagonistic pairings.
The West may have
assimilated much of the pagan wisdom, but it has yet to properly purge
itself of the notion that faith has unique access to truth. (Perhaps the
Americans, with their imperfect and selective rendering of the Greek
tradition are the modern world's Romans?)
The Return of the King:
What there is to admire in this final instalment is mainly what Peter
Jackson himself brings to the narrative, New Zealand and other stunning
visual spectacles. But what of Tolkein? Was it really that flimsy? You
start to think those Tolkein kill-joys might actually have a point after
all. The balance between action and script, fantasy and realism has gone
seriously awry here. Minas Tirith is an amazing special effect; how
far we have come from Titanic. Yet the citadel and its people are
far less credible than the inhabitants of Rohan. What do they subsist on?
There are simply too many special effects in the final battles. Those
long-necked serpent Stukas the Nazgul use were best when used
sparingly in the second film. The Nazi-gul were way cooler as equestrians.
The impact those improbably enormous elephants have on cavalry caused one
Muslim girl in front of V to cower with her arms wrapped around her head.
Indeed, these few moments of the film are extraordinarily violent
(especially to the animals), in some ways as shocking as the opening
moments of Saving Private Ryan. Then suddenly you sense that the
action has become a homage to the opening battle in the Empire Strikes
Back. Legolas has his moment here, as a piece of CGI. Like
several other key figures including even Aragorn, the film's preference
for a panoramic vision leaves him enfeebled as a character. When Jackson
does try to zoom back in on the individuals they are shown either
over-emoting or talking portentuous Matrix-babble - I spotted several "It
is time"s. Most disappointing of all is Frodo who is shown to fail at
the last, carried up the mountain by Sam, forced to ditch the ring and his
finger by Gollum's unlikely intervention, and finally abandoning all his
friends to sail off to the undoubtedly cheesy place in the West where the
elves monopolise immortality and smugness.
Surely something could have
been done in New Zealand to find a better analogue for Mount Doom? V
grew up surrounded by volcanoes and those lava-filled scenes in Mordor
just don't cut the mustard. Part of the problem may be the way the films
have been strung out over 3 years - we would normally expect to see
something new and different with each episode but of course they were all
made at once. The effects in Return are seemingly more intrusive and there
are a number of other annoying little errors, such as the way Frodo's
scabs move from one side of his face to another and the way the din of
battle is conveniently silenced whenever Gandalf is talking.
The ending is never-ending.
It's as if Peter Jackson developed several alternatives then decided to
use them all. V is chanting "beso, beso" slowly to my right when
Frodo and Sam gaze at each other longingly before Frodo pisses off with
the pointy-ears, having presumably
finally realised that the Shire is a deadly-dull place full of
beer-swilling homozygous bog-trotters. (21/12/03)
Watch 9pm C4 programme
about feral children. It didn't have an important scientific
point to make really other than the one Chomsky and co. made years ago -
that language skills require socialisation during a key age window.
There was commentary by an American professor who's lucky she hasn't
been put away in a home for the seriously strange herself. Veronica made
the point that it would have been interesting to step back a bit and
show how domestic pets are humanised as well and to make some more
general and interesting observations about learning, mimicry and
development. It seems that feral children rarely grow up with animals
other than canines, because they're the only ones that bring up
lost humans (other than apes in Tarzan!) No mention made of Frederick
II, who dared to conduct the forbidden experiment. It had never occurred
to him that the children he deprived of adult contact might not learn
any language...he thought they would spontaneously start speaking the
original pre-babel tongue. Something of a precursor to Chomsky!
Watch the last 20 minutes or
so of the delightfully non-PC movie The Party starring Peter
Sellars as a disaster-prone Indian film star that causes mayhem at a
Hollywood party in 1968. Directed by Blake Edwards. Final scenes do enough
to convince you that perhaps the 60s were the best times to be alive. Also
stars the incredibly cute Claudine Longet, infamous for having shot her
lover skier Vladimir "Spider" Sabitch, when he told her she was cramping
Reading a review of
Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle.
She shows how his later essays become more personal, displaying "a
profound and mobile curiosity". For instance he speculated whether he
is playing with his cat or it with him and suggests that cripples make
better sexual partners because the blood that would have ended up in their
legs instead goes to their sexual organs. For Montaigne there was no clear
set of values, rather a "shifting pattern of dispositional preferences".
Interesting programme about
a foetus in foetu extracted from a little boy in Kazakhstan.
It looked like a prop from a fantasy-horror movie, a deformed mass of wan
skin and rope-like twisted black hair, half-formed limbs with little nails
reaching out from the breach that scalpels cut in its rubbery egg-shaped
cocoon. It was a spectacle with the same power to shock and disturb as
that little alien that pops out of John Hurt's stomach - it forces you to
consider the difference between a normal foetus and a parasite. When does
something humanoid become human? Is it when it has purposes beyond the
selfish urge to simply survive?
Watch the excellent Mexican
film Perfume de Violeta. The synopses all suggested that it
was about a rebellious teenage girl and her experience of rape, but it's
not essentially about that (in the way that any American or European
equivalent would be) at all. The film has no moral centre, though you
clearly can sympathise with the situation confronted by its main
protagonist because of the compassionless nature of her world. It's yet
another ultra-realist portrait of Latin America which shows how everyone
eventually turns selfish and nasty in these conditions, and how the
thoughtless actions of the powerful make life disproportionately worse for
the powerless. It has a clever shock ending that defies your efforts to
second guess what kind of conclusion such a narrative might have.
Something else that Hollywood rarely dares to do. It's ultimately a good
film because of the way it constructs its human landscape, not because of
flashy camerawork or other kinds of quirkiness.
The Sunday Times
magazine had a nice piece on the links between
creativity and madness. This was the most intriguing part: "People
with a high IQ are good at focusing on a problem and coming up with one
solution very quickly, whereas creative people can come up with a variety
of solutions simultaneously. It has been suggested that people with high
IQ use small areas of their brain very efficiently, whereas creative
people co-ordinate several brain regions to produce a flood of ideas."
Murcof is Fernando
Corona, a minimalist from Tijuana. "Corona's sound lies somewhere
between Giya Kancheli and the Aphex Twin. Two sorts of static, you might
say, since Corona has the former's penchant for pregnant pauses and the
latter's knack of aestheticising the once taboo sounds of crackling
interference " enthuses the Guardian. (The latter part is the
bit that irritates V the most about his ethereal noises - he seems to
take the discordant sounds of electronic and mechanical botchery and
makes them all part of the rhythmic exposition.)
parts...are constructed from tiny blips and blops, almost subliminal in
their effect, but funkily right in the pocket. And the melodic and
textural parts tend to be slow and languorous, unruffled by the pesky
little beats. I guess the whole album could have been made on a
Funny that they should mention the laptop. During
the whole set Murcof was staring at the screen of his laptop and we took
turns to guess what it was he was actually doing. Frode reckoned he was
playing solitaire. I guessed he was market-watching as his brow was
intermittently furrowed by some serious frowns.
Spitz is a
Cafe-Venue on 2 floors in the old Spitalfields market. The clientele on
the night (and probably every night) was a formless muster of grungey
art students in Matrix knitwear and chic geeks wearing Buddy
Holly-style specs. Peckish, Frode went down to the restaurant below and
ordered himself a 'take-away' of Carpaccio of beef with salad and
Spanish olives which was delivered into the throbbing smoky darkness by
a pretty waitress. Only Frode. She had to move gingerly across the
obstacle-ridden wooden floor, negotiating her way between all the
cross-legged intense looking people and their marijuana fumes.
considered orchestration, contemplative, plaintive melodies and deep
melancholy phrasing...Murcof gets into your head with sheer, expansive
horizons, Spartan piano and fresh atmospherics."- Sleaze Nation
Frode seemed more beguiled
generally than V. "This is the kind of music I work to" he
observed and duly pulled out his Powerbook from his bag.
has an eye for history's little ironies. For example he notes that
the states which retained slavery the longest such as Brazil and Cuba are
the ones which had the highest number of freed men and today have the
highest levels of racial integration. He also notes that North
American inability to do anything much with their native populations other
than obliterate them was a major spur to industrialisation (and that
miscegenation made democracy harder to establish in many non-Anglos
states). Latin America it seems has also been a safety valve where the
most undemocratically-inclined yanquis have periodically let off
FFA seems unwilling however
to fully recognise the impact of human psychology and culture on history.
In dispelling the idea that the state of Latin America is an atavistic
curse he also discounts the effects of anything that could be
characterised as cultural differences. History for FFA is driven by facts
not beliefs and opinions.
It's all very reminiscent of
his piece in the Times where he said that cannibalism was just a
taboo and there was nothing really wrong with it as long as its victims
were "decently dead"! ("Curiously, human beings are the
only routinely cannibal mammals. Cannibalism is therefore a defining
characteristic of humankind. In our culture it has become the subject of
an irrational taboo - although it is hard to see anything offensive about
it, as long as the victim is decently dead")
Catch most of Just
Visiting with Jean Reno. For an American rehash Just Visiting
isn't all that bad. Jean Reno and Christian Clavier are still excellent
and very believable as temporally-shifted medievals. But although the
characters remain credible, the English language version places them in
situations where you can't easily suspend your disbelief.
A comparison of the two
films gives you a sense of some of the fundamental differences between
French and American society. The meal at home scene becomes a meal in a
smart restaurant for example. The class satire is entirely replaced with
a plot about superficial greed.
Progressing with The
Americas: FFA makes the point that the Maya writing system
was design to keep secrets as much as to disseminate or communicate
information. He seems either unaware of, or unwilling to cite, Jared
Diamond's theory about how the North-South orientation of the hemisphere
played a key role in shaping its cultures. He suggests that the engine
behind the native civilisations was the topography that permitted
microclimates to exist in close proximity, especially in the Andes and
Mesoamerica. These microclimates allowed for dense, sedentary, agrarian
societies but contributed to the fragility of the civilisations they
produced. Slaves in large quantities were needed further north if the
English and French were to exploit those environments and at first the
Portuguese controlled much of the access to slave-producing lands.
Indentured workers were a temporary solution, but workers more adapted to
the climate were needed. FFA makes the point that Spanish
Colonialism was essentially urban. Ramshackle northern colonies
envied the Spanish their grid-based urbanisation, cathedrals and their
precious metals. Many non-Iberian colonists in the Americas aped the
Hacenderos of the South. (17/11/03)
Did anyone seriously expect
an answer to life's mysteries in The Matrix Trilogy? I guess
certain works make a better show if tantalising us with depth they don't
really have. Garcia Marquez was never tempted to write a sequel to 100
years! The trick is to craft stories that belong to the same millieu
and appeal to the same audience but don't try to extend an existing
saga too much.
It's even more of a pity
because the underlying philosophical idea behind the Matrix, Plato's cave,
is an interesting metaphor for bringing down some inaccessible
contemporary philosophical hypotheses to the level of popular culture -
but now it is almost off limits thanks to the Wachowski brothers.
I've finished First
Light. It's not at all a tale of combat. There are battle scenes
and they are vivid, but they wouldn't make a good movie. We never learn
much about anybody aside from Geoff and most of the encounters with
Germans appear to be an annoying stressful intrusion on the pliot's true
metier of simply flying. Confusion reigns - from the moment of
engagement the objective becomes escape. God is invoked constantly
as the responsible party for all the legalised murder. What Wellum seems
to be saying, and it's all the more poignant when you consider he
published this memoir as he hit 80, is that the pinnacle of his life and
of the nation he grew up in was 1940 and he was simply too young to fully
appreciate it. And he really convinces you that whatever you think of war,
you really have missed out by not being one of the few that clambered into
Spitfires and defended Britain against Goering's hordes in 1940.
Now reading Americas,
by my new chum Felipe Fernandez Armesto! The first chapter makes me
reflect that the essential problem with anti-Americanism is the fact that
the Americans simply aren't all that exceptional. Their vices are our
vices, just exaggerated, distorted by history.
It is extraordinary that a
hemisphere with so much cultural diversity, so many pockets of immigrant
and indigenous uniqueness should nevertheless appear so uniform in
comparison to Europe. Take Guatemala. 22 Maya languages, and yet, Veronica
and her family are essentially "Hispanic", an identity that ties
them to people living thousands of miles away in Ecuador or Peru.
There really isn't a trans-European equivalent of this identity.
We are all descendents of
migrants and yet in America and Australia the term indigenous is used to
suggest an historical crime. This violation happened, but it was surely
also not exceptional, just the most recent and most recorded.
See Bill Viola, The
Passions at the National Gallery. Perhaps I lack the patience for
Viola's slow motion faces. It's all a bit thespy - The Quintet
of the Astonished could just as easily be described as the quintet of
the actors striving a bit too hard to emote. There appears to be
more underlying Christiano-Buddhist transcendentalist hokum on show here
than in The Matrix!
"It is this high
seriousness of intent, not a fashionable credo in an age of sensationalism
and transgression, that sets Viola apart", comments Sean O'Hagan in
the Observer. Contrast this with Richard Dorment who asserts that "The
Passions is so insufferably, glutinously twee that I couldn't remain in it
for long without coming up for air. This is contemporary art for people
who don't like contemporary art." Viola has, he says, earned his place
in the "pantheon of all-time pseuds" with this New Age twaddle.
People seem to be tip-toeing
around the rooms, their body language suggesting a need to occupy as
little physical space as possible. Is this because this is video or
performance art instead of "lifeless" painting? Perhaps the
most extraordinary piece in the whole exhibition is in the first room
which contains examples of art that has inspired Viola - Mater Dolorosa
and Christ Crowned with Thorns, credited to the workshop of Bouts.
The Crossing (1996) gets closest to the immersive sensation delivered
by the 5 Angels in the Tate Modern. However, by watching from a
thirty degree angle to one side of the screen I missed the fact that the
human figure is simultaneously consumed by fire and water.
Finish Cafe Europa,
Life After Communism by Slavenka Drakulic, essentially a
213 page whinge. Communism crammed millions of peasants into urban
spaces they never really adapted to. She suggest that until the Romanians
have toilet paper and the Bulgarians start smiling democracy has no chance
in the former Iron Curtain states. A sense of exile and frustration, plus
dollops of wounded pride pervade this series of essays on contemporary
Eastern European experience.
Throughout the book there
are many parallels with Guatemala. People's attitude to business in mid
1990s Eastern Europe is conditioned by a lack of a sense of the future -
every opportunity might be your last, the man you rip off today will
probably never cross your path again.
Drakulic also notes how the
egalitarian spirit drives her to take presents back to Croatia each time.
Meanwhile her friends and family back home never write to her in the West
- they are "too busy suffering to respond" to her letters and
The Matric Revolutions:
A tale told by an
The void of ideas is filled
with noise and half-baked mono-syllabic flummery.
As Ulisse suggested, the
final instalment does indeed make you re-consider Reloaded in a
more positive light, but not for the reasons he meant. Mostly a
visual-effect driven battle in the non-stylish, unoriginal world of Zion.
(What's with all those torn sweaters?) Morpheus is shunted into the
background, Trinity killed off in a unnecessarily wasteful fashion and Neo
reduced to a mumbling automaton. Smith has become a vehicle for an
evil laugh. (Why does he reproduce himself ad infinitum if he wants
to fight Neo one on one this time?) Monica Belluci appears simply to flash
her cleavage and deliver one line. The Merovingian appears to have moved
to Berlin. All the human aspects of the plot are squandered.
happened to the white control room from Reloaded? You get the impression
that there has been some massive editing disaster in the last two films-
either too much has been cut out or too much left in! You feel that some
of the characters were more developed and had bigger roles in the
Wachowski imagination before they had to be squeezed into 4 hours of plot.
Peter Bradshaw's review was spot on: He says that the Matrices
were "a sci-fi epic which for one brief, shining moment persuaded us
all that wearing sunglasses indoors wasn't stupid. But that moment has
passed...It's like a 129-minute deleted-scene extra that could have gone
on the DVD of The Matrix Reloaded." And:
"The Matrix has reached into
popular culture and public consciousness. I half expected him to go into
Matrix Dialogue, the enigmatic, oracular idiom we've grown to know and
love: "Does this go down the Holloway Road?" - "Only you can answer that
question." - "Look, can I have a single to Highbury Corner, please?" -
"What you can 'have' is bounded by your own desires."
Dave W said he thought that at the very least the sentinels
could have sung "All you need is love" at the end!
Left the office at 6 and
take the tube to Regent's Park. I figure it's still a bit early to
go into the London Clinic as Mummy has probably only recently checked in,
so I walk past and on to Marylebone High Street. Daunt books is still open
and I'm immediately attracted to a couple of titles on display. It's hard
to get to the SPAIN section as some sort of talk appears to be about to
Suddenly it dawns on me that the two almost
stereotypical academics seated on the dais at the end are none other than
Hugh Thomas and Felipe Fernandez Armesto as I had noticed a
large display of their new books in the entrance. I grab a glass of free
plonk and sit down to listen as they outline the latest products of their
erudition and heap sickening ammounts of self-effacing praise on each
Hugh Thomas has written
another fat tome, this time about the origins of Spanish empire. But it is
FFA who is the highlight of this soiree. I never imagined that he would
talk like Brian Sewell! ("The United States is a syooperpower") His
little book The Americas is an attempt to tell American history from a
hemispheric perspective. Imperialism is "not just a white vice". US
hegemony today represents a reversal of the usual flow in the hemisphere
and is due to a certain limited set of historical circumstances in the
18th and 19th centuries, in particular the exploitation of the great
American desert, the prairie.
Hugh Thomas provokes FFA
into some defensive posturing when he describes the US as "a nation of
suburbs" and when he says that he was surprised no academic attached
to the Bush administration made reference to the Roosvelt Corollary of the
Monroe Doctrine, the right of the US to intervene in any country where
there was a "state of brutal wrong doing". FFA says that such a
justification for intervention in Iraq would have made no difference. "You
actually do an injustice to all the brutal regimes that you choose not to
overthrow". Not sure about the logic behind that.
Kill Bill -
viscerally entertaining, yet intellectually annoying. Tarantino is himself
the star throughout. In other movies I have seen and enjoyed recently such
as 2 Fast 2 Furious the style was the content and I didn't
mind, but here I did. Tarantino seems to have been unduly influenced by
his imitators. Like his buddy Robert Rodriguez he seems to have set out to
make a self-mocking genre film, high on cool, but low on subtexts. Shallow
basically. At least Once Upon A Time In Mexico had some surprises
for us in terms of the sequencing of the slaughter. High Plains
Drifter is no masterpiece, but it sets the standard for the revenge
movie. In it Clint decks the systematic elimination of his foes with
symbolism that leaves you thinking at the end about themes rather than
incidents. This is essentially what Kill Bill fails to do.
Signs in search of their
signifiers. Back to Baudrillard - that our culture increasingly consists
of detached codifications that fall off one meaning and reassemble
somewhere else is increasingly evident. It's not just movies, look
at Beyonce. Is she not some kind of weird collage of J Lo, Shakira
and Tina Turner? As for Britney, she and Madonna are engaged in some
strange sexual meme-exchange themselves right now. (25/10/03)
Reading Terry Eagleton's
After Theory this morning. Seems to offer an answer to George's
lament about there not being any collective intellectual movements or "scene"
to belong to any more.
Eagleton says we are in a
post-collective and post-individualist era. Whereas Culture used to stand
outside the normative bourgeois society, that opposition no longer exists
because the bourgeois worldview has fragmented and Capitalism has
appropriated Culture to the point that its most salient features today
derive from film, fashion, lifestyle, marketing, advertising and the
general communications media.
Eagleton decribes students
of the humanities as "reluctant joiners" and people that speak the
language of value instead of price. "People that know the value of
everything and the price of nothing".
When Frode and I were
working together back in 96, we found ourselves briefly in the midst of a
periodic resurgence of the notion that the present was the place to be and
the future was full of exciting possibilities and not, as the
Postmodernists quip, simply "the present with more options".
Try as I might, I can't
really think of that many deleterious consequences deriving from the
invention of the mouse, aside from RSI. Yet as a cultural artefact, like
all technologies, its claims to neutrality should be treated with
scepticism. It has been less obviously appropriated within the
Capitalist mantras of profit, progress and choice than the mobile phone,
which is at the very centre of efforts to pervert some of our most
important values such as Freedom.
Since the Enlightenment
Science and Technology has occasionally staked a claim to offering a path
to curing all that is bad with the human condition, the old doctrine of
the perfectibility of man. When cultural scepticism has fostered greater
caution, science has switched to the more limited claim of worthwhile
improvement. Yet the utopianist vision certainly perked up again in the
late 90s. Somehow technology was all about overcoming the weaknesses
of our genetic inheritance and extending our innate capabilities, which
for some amounted to taking humans to a next stage.
Frode and Doug are
visionaries that stand just outside the corporate world of technology. The
solutions they offer are targeted at "power users", which
keeps them sufficiently elitist to be harder to assimilate within the
system of mass desire mediated by Capitalism. (1/10/03)
Read "The Flowers", a
short story by Arthur Schnitzler which suggests that we are
never truly dead until everyone that knew us when alive is also dead.
Salinger's Franny and Zooey this morning. The core themes of
the precocious intellectualism and the cross-denominational mysticism of
the siblings are basically a bit irritating throughout Zooey.
I also find the obvious mystery of the status of the narrator in the
second story a little too precious as well. Franny is the more
enjoyable piece, less mannered in its style, and more reminiscent of
Catcher in the Rye.
Once Upon A Time in
Mexico is entertaining, but let down by it's ambition to break out
of the simple plot set-up of the first two films into something resembling
a comic book version of Traffic. Too many different characters
(especially baddies) to keep track of and too many fake Mexicans. (Enrique
Iglesias and Willem Dafoe being the worst examples) Yet there are
some great set-pieces in the cobbled streets of Guanajuato and
Johnny Depp is his usual excellent self. (In one scene he asks someone "are
you a MexiCAN or a MexiCAN'T?!) The Sunday Times review
has dismissed the whole thing as "banal" but I think Rodriguez has
created a playfully clichéd mythological caper and the only real
difference with Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns or even Crouching
Tiger... is that this is much more tongue in cheek. (Peter
Bradshaw in fact uses the term Tortilla Western) Rodriguez has
nevertheless overextended himself as a creator of narrative on this
The movie has been shot with
a digital camera. Depp's prosthetic arm is memorable, as are the
machine-gun and flamethrower guitars.
Matchstick Men: The film is a little short of captivating and the
twist comes along like a final sledgehammer which in many ways spoils the
other aspects of the story. A closing sentimental scene is deployed
as an unsuccessful attempt to restore meaning to the characters, above and
beyond the intricacies of the plot. There are some odd echoes of Lolita.
Cage is surprisingly good though.
down finally in Turin - he saw a man beating a horse in the Piazza
Carlo Alberto and threw himself around the horses neck to protect
it. He never recovered his marbles and died 10 years later. The
enormous compassion in his nature is one of the great ironies of his
biography. It seems he ultimately failed to become an amoral
super-person. Conclusion: If being a free spirit means rejecting
religion and morality along with the alternatives of both positivism and
nihilism, it means going ga-ga.
My comment in conversation
last night that Nietzsche's philosophy isn't really about anything
concrete is reinforced by Safranki's summing up in the last chapter of his
is everything. There is no overarching meaning, but only a dynamics of
struggle, self-assertion and self-enhancement both individually and
collectively...There is no point of arrival...no outcome and no end
result. There is only the will to an unceasing adventure in thinking"
Nietzsche has been
appropriated by many people since his death - his core ideas could
almost be made to mean anything. e.g. He was deeply anti-anti-semitic
and yet appealed to the Nazis. Part of the problem is that after he went
ga-ga his sister took charge of publicising his works and she was a
dedicated anti-semitic Wagnerian. One Nazi thinker noted ironically:"All
in all, Nietzsche was an opponent of socialism, an opponent of
nationalism, and an opponent of racial thinking Apart from these bents
of mind he might have made an excellent Nazi"
Most people know that he
said "God is dead". His philosophy is a very personal exploration
of the "What happens next then?" question. He assumed that most
people simply can't cope with the idea that unity, stability, meaning
and goals are lacking in the cosmos and that they need some blinders to
prevent them thinking about it. He once prophetically said that anyone
that who denied God was a "madman" for this very reason.
Ultimately his pre-breakdown response to the defunct God problem was to
say that God's killers must themselves become Gods (or ubermensch)
because the alternatives would all lead to a vulgarisation of culture.
For example, Kant
had insisted reason was the answer. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of
philosophy favours empiricism and you could argue that modern society
reflects the uncontemplative, empirical nature of modern science.
Nietzsche flirted with metaphysics throughout his life and was generally
much too German to adopt a cold, "apollonian" approach. He
thought of Socrates as the founder of knowledge without wisdom and the
main culprit behind the trend towards mass-participatory democracy and
the machine age. You could perhaps now also argue that our contemporary
society reflects another of the responses to a dead God that Nietzsche
feared...a culture of the "last men" - the mediocre masses, who
brutally defend their mundane existences and banal pleasures. Heat
Nietzsche also rejected
nihilism and historicism (Hegel, Marx). He thought life was essentially
tragic, agonistic. An attempt to use reason and science to achieve
a more equitable division of happiness was misguided because the
happiness of the greatest number was secondary to the potential
achievements of super-individuals. On these "peaks" humanity
would be judged, not by how well it compensated for the general
wretchedness of being.
Safranski has concluded
that he ultimately "fell victim to the colossal dimensions of life",
meaning that he never really got his head round how to expand himself
into one of these amoral supermen.
His first nature,
compassionate as the horse incident shows, never fully transformed into
his cruel second nature alter-ego. But that makes his philosophy
even more engaging. He knew that he was himself part of the problem, and
concluded that teaching was the only way to learn and develop into
something potentially better.
is a macabre affair. If Swimming Pool seemed a bit like
a French joke on the Anglo-Saxons than this animated nightmare is even
more so. It could bring out the latent Francophobe in anyone. "So
French you can taste it" says Peter Bradshaw in his review. Yes, you
can indeed almost taste the spit-roasted frogs! Apparently the debt
to Tati is explicitly recognised, and indeed I had the same uneasy
sense of Gallic putrescence bubbling to the surface from underneath all
the apparent innocence and charm when I saw that double bill of Tati films
with Surfer last month. Not exactly going to be a huge hit Stateside...the
film appropriates New York and turns it into a French-speaking dystopia of
the fat and sleazy.
In the home straight now
with Safranski's biography of Nietzsche who was constantly asking
the question, how did I come to be privileged enough to think the way I do
and what sort of person does this make me? He suggested that morality was
in origin not moral, that it mirrored existing power relations and was
ultimately a question of who's judging who. The goal of life was not the
happiness and prosperity of the greatest number but individual excellence
and success, the will to power.
the notion of a metaphysical "world behind" and instead
claimed that the universe was lacking any goal "unless there
is a goal in the happiness of a circle".
one's distance from things, the mystery is preserved, he thought. One has
to avoid becoming alienated from the core of existence which is
possible if one indulges too much in the culture of the "last men".
It seems to me that some
people are simply "greater" than others. They have more good qualities
("virtues"). A great person can be an aphrodisiac, especially if
their greatness has rewarded them materially and enhanced their
reputation. But they can be both attractive in this sense and UGLY.
Clearly there are also beautiful people who are not especially virtuous
(used in the sense of greatness here).
The classic "inner
beauty" idea was best illustrated recently by the film Shallow Hal.
Superficially ugly people with inner beauty appeared beautiful to him
and superficially beautiful people with bad characters appeared ugly.
Yet I don't think a lack of inner beauty negates outer beauty...how
could it? It's not like matter and anti-matter.
Have reached the
Übermensch stage in Nietzsche's biography - having killed God
we now need to become God in order to avoid an inevitable downward spiral
towards banality. (Maybe the history of the 20th century reflects our
inability to actually become God and hence our grudging acceptance that
vulgarisation is the only alternative?)
Nietzsche suffered from
the problem of others not seeing him as he saw himself - a sensation he
described as the "affect of distance". This is one
explanation for the fantasies of mass annihilation that crop up in his
writings of the period. The masses appear as a hindrance to the goal of
humanity which must lie in its "peaks". (16/9/03)
I have now reached the stage
in Nietzsche's life story where he has concluded that passions aim for
totality whilst science teaches reserve and the relativity of knowledge.
Science acts as a coolant on self-mystifying enthusiasms. Art, he thought,
was both a faded echo of religion and another aspect of our
self-abhorrence. Safranski notes that the concern here was how far
you can go with the spirit of science before you find yourself in a
desert. "Scientific curiosity is initially refreshing, enlivening and
liberating , but truths turn gloomy once we have become accustomed to them."
against his initial enthusiasm for Art, questioning whether there was any
higher knowledge to be found in a heightened state of being. A
tendency to be metaphysical about art (or in my case perhaps sex and
romance!) can lead, he now believed, to "self-mystifications".
Cypher is yet
another deeply silly movie. Tania summed it up best: It's like when
someone is telling you a story and you think it's a joke and start
laughing only to discover that actually they were being deadly serious.
Indeed at first I thought that perhaps we were in for some satire of
corporate America. (along the lines of films like Demolition Man
which used a future world to poke some fun at our own.) One crucial early
scene was a reminder that if Dante were alive today, the lowest level of
hell would be 24-hour Powerpoint.
Yet in the end, the plot
isn't about anything other than itself. It's like a Philip K. Dick story
with all the insides gouged out of it. And it's all so
self-consciously stylish (the Matrix is not the only other film you
are reminded of), as there are constant references, intended or not, to
other genre-definers than in Charlie's Angels! Personally I
experienced flashbacks to Tron, Leon, Brazil, The
Truman Show and others. Jeremy Northam's nerdy character also reminds
me of Michael Palin's accountant.
That it ends on a yacht is
just the last of a line of cliches and one that is handled with less style
than many of the others. Definitely an example of Baudrillard's
postmodernist dystopia of re-shuffled signs.
The key to the silliness of
this film is perhaps this odd need to bug boring conferences with
60s-style pen transmitters or to move vital data around on plastic CDs.
Like many a vision of the future it feels somehow old fashioned - thirty
years forward meets thirty years backwards. Yet this particular futurist
vision basically fails to deliver what the genre is supposed to deliver -
either a satire of the present or a credible projection of a possible
future world. And the CGI is crummy.
Maybe one could say that it
starts off quite well and that there are perhaps better possible
resolutions of the initial premise. Tania suggested one in which everyone
turns out to work for the same company for example. That Northam was
himself the dodgy independent operator was something I guessed halfway
through the film, but I hadn't actually figured out that this was why his
nerdy character had such widening personality fissures.
It's hard to think of a
universe like ours that lacked the possibility of knowledge. Indeed a
universe like ours must contain the possibility because here we are. Just
how unlikely are we. Biologists and other scientists can show how the
mutations that led to self-aware creatures were responses to quite
contingent events in our ancestors' environments. Yet it is still hard to
comprehend that the place of knowledge in the cosmos is contingent.
When we seek for God, we are in part doing so in the hope that there is a
greater knowledge out there that somehow comprehends us more fully. Our
lifelong partner becomes something of a surrogate for this.
Socrates as the originator of the notion that knowledge can
overcome the injustices of nature and society. This is the concept of
knowledge as corrective panacea, developed further by Aristotle and
ultimately resulting in our own machine age, where the metaphysical
promise of salvation has been transposed into a vision of progress, where
all the deficiencies of life are really just deficiencies of our
To Nietzsche though, life
was not a process of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement,
rather a cycle of expiring and expanding around a fixed point. He wanted
to gaze into "that which defies clarification" and reassert the
validity of tragedy. For him the poor lived tragedy, whilst
the rich were cognizant of it, which made for a kind of equitable
distribution of pain! Socrates' "loathsome pretention to
happiness" is contrasted with the unsentimental Democritus who taught
that "nothing exists but atoms and empty space; the rest is just
opinion". For Democritus nature is indifferent and beyond good and
evil. The atomic substance of the world is calculable rather than
perceptible, the sun really doesn't rise. Plato burned Democritus' books:
indeed Platonic cognition meant a process of discovering the good in the
world and becoming good in the process.
is how Nietzsche describes the notion of connection between nature and
knowledge - the basic discernibility / intelligibility of the world.
This view distrusts incommensurability. Truth is valid without
reference to the individual - intersubjectivity.
Have also reached the stage
in Nietzsche's biographical timeline where he pulls away from Wagner
and artistic metaphysics, having realised that the man in his portrait
was "beyond" the real Wagner. Getting away from the magician in
this way is described as escaping from Klingsor's Garden.
Fascinated by a chapter in
Safranski's book about the obscure German individualist/ nominalist
philosopher who called himself Stirner, author of Der Einzige
und sein Eigentum / The Ego and its Own Such was his
state of ostracism by the juste-milieu of contemporary thinkers,
that even Nietzsche elected to send one of his students to take the book
out of Basel library! Nobody wanted to admit having read or been
influenced by his exaggerated ideas!
Stirner was an agitator that
believed that some sort of more direct individual experience would be
possible if we rid ourselves of the network of concepts that obscure it -
essentialist phantasms. The "other world outside us" had
been critiqued into submission, but the "other world inside us"
had if anything expanded its pernicious influence, Stirner thought.
Nietzsche differed from Stirner in that he saw the removal of "phantasms
of thought" as a means and not as an end in itself. He spoke of
the "giddiness" of knowledge that went beyond its own boundaries.
He took from Stirner the idea that the creator must stand outside his
creation, and must not accede to his own thoughts. Stirner's philosophy
echoes that of the Stoics, whose maxim was that we are not
influenced so much by things themselves, as by our view of them.
A friend of Nietzsche noted
that he would be attracted to short sentences that others had crafted and
would attach his own thoughts onto them, building new structures that used
them as a foundation.
Adapted from an email sent
At some point in the
distant past our ancestors acquired some new abilities. A change in the
architecture of the brain meant that not only could they suddenly
imagine making more complex tools, they acquired the dexterity and skill
to do so. Pretty much at the same time they acquired an appreciation of
the sacred. All 3 of these changes are really important to the
history of art.
Now when someone says to
Damien Hirst. "I could have done that" and Hirst replies "But
you didn't" he is defending the originality of his imaginative
composition. But the fact remains that I COULD put a dead shark in a
tank. What I can't do is compose a symphony, or paint like Vermeer.
So some modern artists are
in effect using only one of the cavemen's new abilities. Yes, it's still
art of course. But there is a difference. What we think of as art
is culturally and historically determined and it's certainly the case
that, in the West at least, the word Art was inextricably bound up with
the "Artifice", or skill side as well as the imaginative side.
It seems to me that the
urge to create art is inextricably linked to consciousness. And yet
consciousness represents the tip of the human iceberg...such a small
fraction of our senses, perceptions and memories make it in there at
any given moment. So in both the act of creation and the act of
interpretation you are dealing with something being forced through a
bottleneck. This is a good reason why there is no single objective
(human at least) position from which to interpret a work of art, not
even the consciousness of the creator. (Nietzsche, like you, was
convinced that thought precedes self and consciousness. )
Art to some extent
mediates this gap. It functions in part as a medium whereby
individuals and societies can come to better understand some of the
human mysteries that may be just beyond the bounds of everyday
awareness. But the urge to communicate and the urge to create are not
exactly the same thing. Art is also the way our consciousness
confronts non-human mysteries and attempts to acquire transcendental
knowledge. Now I'm very liberal, but I'm not a cultural relativist in
spite of what I said above about subjective interpretation. I do
believe in the possibility of transcendental knowledge and objective
value, I just haven't figured out a way to prove it to myself, or
Nietzsche remarked "Flight
from boredom is the mother of all art", something which would make
no sense at all to an African "artist" whose creativity is inseparable
from his immersement in the sacred world of his tribe. Nietzsche's
notion of boredom was perhaps a little more sophisticated than mine
though. He thinks of art as a remedy for the "eternal wound",
the abyss that we might start worrying about were it not for art (or
indeed some other kind of vacuous entertainment or indeed religion) to
take our minds off it.
In the 19th century
Bourgeois society looked upon art as the ultimate justification for
humanity and indeed a justification for the general injustice of
life/nature. Nowadays I believe we are more likely to think of
technology in this way. Ok, we pay lip service to the idea that the
highest human values are moral ones, the well-being of the greatest
number etc. but in practice we are interested in the well-being of
(western) humanity, which today means our own society's economic and
political values and its cool inventions. Art has come to play a
more ambivalent role. These days people appreciate Britart to
some extent because it represents an art of transgression. Nietzsche
would have had fits about this because he saw the role of art as a
remedy for social alienation, as a unifying force.
Anyway, elitist art
snobs still claim that you need both the innate inimitable
talent/skill as well as the imaginative ability to produce great art,
but I have thought about this and I think you can be an
imaginative genius even if you're a total clutz when it comes
to actually making stuff.
Schopenhauer are good examples of what happens when intelligent men don't
get out enough. Nietzsche admired what he called Schopenhauer's "Faustian
Odour"! This came from eschewing diversion and confronting the
tragedy of life. Nietzsche's early ideas centre on "self-configuration".
He openly admired men that were poets of their own lives, creatively
interacting with each moment that they lived. Life as performance art,
perhaps. Byron was obviously one of these. Nietzsche charaterises his own
position as that of "disciple of an as yet unknown God".
Faith was the route for those that seek tranquility or happiness, truth
leads to suffering an requires a more heroic stance.
With the US the key issue
isn't whether or not they are behaving like an Imperialist power, but why
they are so bad at it. The Belgians were bad imperialists, but that
was supposedly because they lacked grandeur. The US is a great
power, but is it in some ways a kind of federation of Belgiums?
There is a recurring split
personality syndrome in US foreign policy, at once bully and recluse. In
Vietnam they lacked the political and ultimately the national will to
prevail. In Central America hypocrisy prevailed, genocide and narcotics
trafficking were condoned in the interests of strategic objectives.
Somalia was a complete mess and now we have Liberia, where they are being
at best hesitant.
The Brits acquired an empire
in India by accident, pushing inland to quell "failed states".
Perhaps the US too is an accidental imperialist, but one that lacks the
vision that ultimately coloured most of the map red.
In the documentary
accompanying We Were Young...Hal Moore says "Hate war,
love the US warrior". For him this is the solution, the correct
attitude that Hollywood has somehow missed before they made a film of his
experiences in Vietnam. Yet this is nothing more than a call to moral
blindness. Perhaps we can absolve Hal Moore's men - they fought bravely
for each other and against an equally, if not more, valiant enemy. But
does their heroism absolve their government, or their murderous
Great ill is also done in the name of religion. Can
you say Hate Persecution, Intolerance, Child-abuse but love the
Catholic priest? Jack Geoghegan epitomises the difficult issue and the
film took pains to emphasise his idealism and good work in Africa for the
church. Yet moments before his own demise he was dealing out death in a
frenzied, brutal fashion. The warrior code is a form of ascetic
world-rejection like the monastic code. For Moore Vietnam was going to be
like home ought to be, yet his battle-scared troopers later spoke of
returning to "the world". Shared courage under fire explains
the war from the soldier's perspective, but surely we can't take this as
the whole truth in spite of the fact that an understanding of this "good"
was previously missing from our appreciation of the general "bad" that was
the Vietnam war.
is pretty good, but it takes me a while to get involved. I'm in the front
row, but it's the smallest screen in the place. James Spanker is back in
his standard perv role. Maggie Gyllenhaal, a girl with a pointy nose and
very expressive eyes, plays the masochistic secretary. If it wants to be a
comedy it fails, but it has a quirkiness which makes the S&M theme more
acceptable because it is made to seem irrelevant to non-quirky people. It
ends up as a kind of heart-warming romantic love story between people with
rather odd inclinations. Gyllenhaal plays Lee as odd and basically
unremarkable, but becomes sensual and sexy in her submissive role, which
is possibly the only controversial note.
Skimming some reviews
of "We were Young..." including this one by The Observer's
"There isn't a single
subversive sentiment and only one four-letter word in the whole film. This
is because Colonel Moore and Joe Galloway are not only central characters
but credited as technical advisers. Can you imagine a critical,
revisionist film of the New Testament in which Christ and St Paul were
chief consultants on the set?"
It made me laugh. It also
reminded me how a film is somehow supposed to be "objective" even when
it's based on the subjective and partisan account of a participant.
When you read the book you accept that it has a point of view. I wonder
why reviewers can't do the same with films?
Moore's account of
this futile and brutal battle follows the now fashionable trend set by
'Band of Brothers' and Black Hawk Down which avoids
offering an ethical analysis of whether it is right and sensible to
fight because "all that matters is the guy next to you". The
Americans spent years developing "air mobility" warfare using the new
fangled Huey helicopters, so they could airlift themselves into the
middle of an ambush rather than wait for the North Vietnamese to come
along and ambush them in traditional fashion. In a way, this may
be more of an anti-war story than tales like 'Saving Private Ryan',
where fighting can seem quite awesome and the need to actually have the
battle, both for ethical and strategic reasons is a given, regardless
of the ensuing carnage. (Francois Truffaut said that it's not
possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their
energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun.) (25/8/03)
The Swimming Pool
- Is this one of those films whose plot simply serves to disguise its
own punch-line? Other than that it seems to be an elaborate joke on the
English and a celebration of its young star's breasts. And it's
certainly subtle and atmospheric. But is the twist simple or
complicated and can I be bothered to think about it. Annoyingly, I may
have to see the film again just to be sure. Sixth Sense had one
obvious seam between its two realities. In this one there could be
Thinking more about the
links between Hopper and Vermeer waiting for bus at Canary Wharf.
Both had a fascination with the partially mysterious and both preferred to
explore the feminine mystery over the masculine. Artists and writers
perhaps tend not to fall for "deep" women. Rather they are drawn to the
ones that can help them unlock their own depths, their own unconscious.
They don't want to peer into another open soul, they want access to their
Alain de Botton and
his philosopher mate John Armstrong both preach that our compulsive
attractions to the opposite sex are usually the result of imaginative
projection - we project fine qualities onto our object of desire that
perhaps they don't really have...and so we are inevitably disappointed
when we establish intimacy and discover the person we are now right up
close to isn't the one we were infatuated with. I find this rather a
rather annoyingly smug and simplistic male cop-out.
Who ever said love was
rational? 90% of all perception is unconscious. So you would
expect a large part of the reasons that we are attracted to someone else
to be completely opaque to reason. These fine qualities we project onto
other people are just post-rationalisations. (and conversely when we
meet people that DO have all the right qualities we are often not
attracted to them!)
But the problem with
unconscious perception is clearly that we are normally not aware of it,
or aware how to tap into it. Whereas our conscious self is an on-going
narrative, the things that stir us most deeply are often exactly the
kind of fleeting impressions that are hard to enjoy without pausing to
contemplate them, and without understanding that they are essentially
ephemeral. You can't stretch them out to fill your whole life.
The book about Vermeer
is helping me to frame my ideas about how the best things in life come
in the form of very transient moments, whose value can be extended through
contemplation. (Isn't one longing look almost worth as much as a lifetime
Like many of the best things
in life 'Pirates of the Caribbean' is one of those "on-the-edgy"
entertainments, walking in wobbly fashion along the thin line separating
the very successful from the very bad. Take Johnny Depp's
performance for example. This could have been the most appallingly
high-camp rendition of a pirate ever, and yet he gets away with it. (OK,
he's still not a very convincing robber captain!) Then there are the
"can't-be-killed" pirates engaged in furious battle scenes. This whole
element of the plot could have descended into absurdity never to return
and yet somehow the sheer fun of it all gives it enough momentum to get
through before you start asking yourself those awkward logical questions.
It's interesting that there is rarely an even continuum between good and
bad. It's like the difference between the first two Matrix films. Kitsch
is terrible, but "almost Kitsch" can be absolute genius. Pirates has all
the cliches, except as John pointed out, a bloke with a wooden leg. The
parrot is there, and so is the plank. The special effects were obviously
expensive, but in places the film felt quite low-budget. In one scene
there's a little spit of white-sanded beach that's not especially lovely
and you can just imagine the nasty SANDALS resort around the corner.
Plenty of people going "ahahaaaaargh" and some great sword fights as
The first 20 minutes or so
of 'Traffic' (1971) are a life and death struggle with my
own eyelids. Yet I am shaken awake by some spectacular and actually quite
sophisticated visual comedy, though the funniest of all is the bizarre
scene when a passing group of summer-of-lovers fake a tragic dog accident.
(Haha. Still makes me laugh.) James says he had tears in his eyes
throughout. I'd have to say that it was all a bit hit and miss.
Though the Dutch traffic policemen with their burlesque Flemish babble are
extremely amusing and some of the details of the camping car are also
Les Vacances de Mr
Hulot is an earlier (1953) more slapstick affair, set in beautiful
Saint-Marc-sur-Mer in Loire-Atlantique, which must now have been utterly
ruined. Again it has its special moments - the tennis game and Hulot's
ping pong shuffle, collecting water from the sprinkler and it spins, the
oar falling down the staircase, the old man dismissively chucking the
sea-shells his wife enthusiastically passes him. And once again one or two
visual jokes are over-used in my opinion, like the noise of the dining
room door. It's basically very gentle, and having been made before I was
born, less of a disturbing Tardis trip to the drab world of my infancy.
Ebert's review is as ever spot on: "The first time I saw Jacques
Tati's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday,'' I didn't laugh as much as I thought I was
supposed to. But I didn't forget the film, and I saw it again in a film
class, and then bought the laserdisc and saw it a third and fourth time,
and by then it had become part of my treasure. But I still didn't laugh as
much as I thought I was supposed to, and now I think I understand why. It
is not a comedy of hilarity but a comedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness
and good cheer...When
I saw the film a second time, the wonderful thing was, it was like
returning to the hotel. It wasn't like I was seeing the film again; it was
like I was recognizing the people from last year.")
It's interesting to read
later that the essential difference between Tati and Chaplin is the
Frenchman's apparent lack of improvisation. It was all planned
methodically in advance - and yet many of the gags do still seem oddly
random. Like one of my emails where I try too hard to cram in all
the ideas I have scribbled in my notebook! In the end, it's
somewhere between Chaplin and Mr Bean.
is good, not great. It is propelled by a somewhat nasty ironic humour,
epitomised by Phoenix's unavoidably twisted smile. "There are two types
of people here, the motherfuckers and the motherfucked" is quite a
memorable line (and "good scheisse ja?"). Ed Harris is superb
as the ineffectual Supply Colonel.
I am getting a little
frustrated with Bachelard, whose prose can be insufferably
precious. "The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep".
Puh-lease. Why am I reading about the poeticism of doorknobs?
Bachelard. So many nuggets amidst so much verbiage. The "house
we are born in", with its verticality between cellar and attic, is
surely not as universally formative as he suggests. Yet there is
something that rings very true about the suggestion that this primal home
is our first cosmos and structures forever after how we perceive the wider
cosmos. (Are the hidden corners of the Matrix like a kind of cellar, the
locus of unconscious fears?) "The house we are born in is
physically inscribed within us" Bachelard suggests. "The feel of
the tiniest latch has remained in our hands...this passionate liaison of
our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgetable house."
It's no doubt the same with unforgetable people. After a long
absence we find our mind re-loads some of the old software and our
behaviour slips into familiar but almost forgotten routines.
I suppose that in
Bachelard's terms, my riverside flat with it's balcony overlooking an
expanded city space, has an unusual cosmicity for an urban
dwelling, but in other senses suffers from horizontality.
T3: Rise of the
Machines: We have the same seats as usual, 18 and 19 in the
4th row back. Unfortunately I have to sit next to an excitable giggly and
gay Italian with a crash helmet who provides a running commentary
throughout. The hottest of evenings and he and his mates are sitting
there in leather biker jackets.
T3 is actually better than
the overrated T2 in places. Much of the budget has been spent on
wanton destruction, especially during the opening car chase sequence,
which had me laughing out loud at the sheer ruin of it all. 9-11 has
obviously set a new benchmark here which Hollywood must surpass. There
definitely a new one-liner: "Talk to the hand" and Arnie's
pronunciation of words with air as ear gets a few laughs
The prototype Terminators
look even less likely to take over the world as the Daleks did in the
1960s. Kristanna Loken reminds me of the snub-nosed blondes
Baksheesh and I used to hang-out with from the Swedish school (at the time
the SPGS girls seemed way too aloof and intellectual for us!) She seems to
have modelled her movements on those of Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.
The funniest thing about the
plot is how easily Arnie and his two human side-kicks get right into the
heart of a top secret pentagon installation. This part actually feels
Chewing on this as I waited
for the bus: we can only ever get an intimation of ultimate reality. Our
perceptions and our logic are not sufficient. Any theory or doctrine that
claims to provide access to ultimate truth (or some kind of complete
explanation) is necessarily delusional. Most of us can't live with partial
solutions and need to start their thinking around an existing total
solution. In that sense they perform a valuable function. GR Elton's view
that we should all be road-testers for theories requires that the theories
exist. History for sure would be a great deal duller without them.
Some more memorable moments
in Blindness. Such as the Doctor's wife running from
the supermarket when the blind crawling around on the floor suddenly
detect the smell of chorizo on her breath and start screaming. This would
be hard to duplicate in a movie. It's fun that the central character
should be known only as the Doctor's wife. Saramago seems to enjoy
describing nakedness. As readers we of course see nothing, it's all in the
mind's eye, which is probably what Saramago is alluding to. But we
imagine we see the world as well as the sighted Doctor's wife, who's
nakedness is an irrelevance in the blind world.
"History has become a blow
up doll and humanitarianism is its condom" says Baudrillard, and
who's to say what he means. Definitely a case of mixing metaphors. The
more you think about this one the less it seems to say.
However a few more here
which do seem to have some underlying content:
"The strategy of idleness
- the unshakeable desire to escape the violation of out time by all kinds
of predatory, futile activities consists in putting off the point where
those activities have to be done".
"Art was the poetic
transfiguration of the real. Philosophy was the poetic transfiguration of
the concept." and
"I quite like wasting time but not having it
Blindness is a
bit like Big Brother meets Casandra Crossing, in the first third at least.
In Day of the Triffids the blindness serves to make humans easy
prey for the killer plants. In 'Blindness' Saramago explores the central
idea in itself a great deal more...what are the social implications he
seems to be asking? What's the difference between the new blind and the
old blind? These incarcerated blind folk bicker, shit, fuck and fight.
There are loads of interesting little details such as the anguish the
pretend-blind woman feels when her watch stops. The separate solution for
blind soldiers. But Saramago does seem to follow one Hollywood convention
- the further from the core roles people are the more simplistic their
characters and motivations seem to be.
was nicely balanced. It suggests that the action of the first wave at
Omaha was indeed glorious. After all someone had to start first in order
for the beachhead to be established and this meant inevitable sacrifice.
Company A was chosen for this task on merit. Yet it was also unfair.
Unfair because war is unfair in its selection of who will live and who
will die, unfair because they had little way of fighting back at first and
unfair in the wider sense that society is unfair, leaving the young and
poor with the hardest lot. Finally it also suggests that there was
some underlying military incompetence as well as bad luck on the day that
compounded the slaughter.
with junk DNA, returning again and again to the idea of a useless 90%.
He objects to using a computer to save time: "Time saved is as serious
as blood spilt". He asks if the deaf hear or the blind see in
Americanism can't be
rejected he suggests, because it runs through all our societies like
modernity itself. Yet he is clearly irritated by "the deculturated
peasant and acculturated tourists, arrogant adults and children with their
pretentious technical gadgetry and senseless chatter."
Baudrillard also notes with
irony that while capitalism raises living standards increasing the hopes
of many that they too can have skiing holidays, yet at the same time
reduces their chances of this through the atmospheric warming it fosters.
If "Apophatic is the term applied to a theology which seeks
knowledge of God through what he is not" what would apophatic history
be like, he muses. Interactivity, he suggests "is the end of the
spectacle. It all began with the abolition of the stage and the immersing
of the spectator in the spectacle; Living Theatre. When everyone becomes
an actor there is no action any longer, there is no stage. "
The mistake of socialism was
to think it could take the whore History for its own and quickly became
the "eternal cuckold".
He refers to a story I was
unaware of, a liner full of the world's smart set which set out from
Manaus to celebrate the new century in 1889 which "drifted off into the
night, carrying its passengers to their deaths in the meanders of the
"You gauge the flow of
time only through others", he notes, because their "faces are much
fairer and crueller mirrors to us than our own image. This is doubtless
because we recognise them through all their changing appearances, while
one never recognises oneself: one always rectifies one's image by
reference to an ideal face from which one's present face is merely an
exception - an never a definitive one".
There are some cleverly mad
ideas too. Such as fixing retirement dates based on the anticipated
date of death and thus eliminating a "scandalous inequality". And
the points-based license for behaviour embedded in every citizen: "You
would only need to embed the points-based license in the body as a kind of
programmed implant to have the recalcitrant liquidated by automatic
seizure." Or "we should plan to build niches filled with explosives
into the buildings of the future."
And then there's..."imagine
the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the
world. This is as marvellous as being there at the beginning." A few
pithier but interesting quotelets:
"In the empty space of
desire, the seats are expensive."
"You never have both the
cards and the rules of the game at the same time." (A
possible Netcoms motto that.)
"The worst thing when your ideas
are plundered is the fact of being taken for a wreck"
democratic dictatorship is shaping up nicely"
to be born out of uniformity; today, it is the product of acceleration"
Finally, an interesting observation about the first Gulf War, also
applicable to the second: "Working on the event as it happens, as with
the Gulf War, yet not in real time and not with the benefit of hindsight,
but with the distance of aspiration. Journalism of the third kind, the
very opposite of reporting." and "It is as impossible for a citizen
to form an opinion on the basis of the news media as to form an aesthetic
judgement on the basis of the art market."
In his parting speech to the
faculty GR Elton told us in 1986 that the proper role of the historian was
not to be a believer but to be a verifier. It seems that
Edward Hopper was also a pragmatic thinker, aware of
transcendentalism but not caught up by it. He concentrated and
compacted reality in frozen motion in order to observe it more closely,
perhaps seeking evidence "in between the frames" for something outside the
Hopper's art also suggests a
continuity between the human world and the natural world albeit in
disequilibrium at the points of contact. (A dialectical relationship in
fact, "simultaneously an incursion and an expansion" in the words
of Kranzfelder. An interim space in permanent oscillation. )
How much of the human world
is the way it is because we collectively willed it that way? Mechanisation
is something that happened to us as much by us. Many of the
properties of technology are systemic, like nature. The dichotomy between
the natural and the artificial is in important respects itself artificial.
With the obvious caveat
of 'if you like that kind of thing' 2 Fast 2 Furious is a
fabulous film. And as a sequel it succeeds where Matrix Reloaded failed.
Successful creativity is often about knowing what to include and what to
leave out and this film gets this part right. Key elements of the first
film are retained but overall the pacing and balance are improved. In this
instance it is the second film that stands out as intelligent (yes!) ,
original and genre-defining. (Plus it doesn't have that dickhead Vin
Diesel in it.)
Of course the general mood
and sensibility are unashamedly adolescent. The camera drools over the
cars and ogles the girls, but actual sex is appropriately absent. Violence
too is kept to a minimum. There are no deaths from gunshot wounds, though
opportunities for including them are abundant. The central
drug-trafficking latino baddy, is played with delicious menace by Cole
Hauser. Yes, he's a walking cliche, but he's better than 90% of
his duplicates. The central eye-candy is provided by Cuban-American Eva
Mendes, physionomically a Bollywood version of Cindi Crawford, great to
look at, but you can tell she'd be less good at thumping goons than her
precursor Jennifer Lopez, so the directors have left her with an
essentially passive role.
In the original Matrix the filmmakers
managed to distract us from the essential silliness of the underlying
premise. They then forgot to do this is in the sequel. Sticklers for
realism and rational plotlines will no doubt also find 2 Fast 2 Furious a
painful experience, but as with artier self-consciously surrealist cinema,
that's really not the point.
Quibbles. Perhaps there isn't enough
real wit in the script. Hollywood Spanish is also much evident: "Muevanse
muevanse", the equivalent of "Schnell Schnell" in WWII
movies. But none of this detracts from the thrill, which is maintained at
high octane levels throughout. It's a successful blending of genres into
something that feels new and different, kind of MTV Base meets Playstation
meets Miami Vice. For UK viewers there's perhaps a bit of Essex in there
surprisingly enjoyable, but I guess it must be classed as an example of
one of those Faux-Brow movies. It's slow in places and I'm
not entirely convinced by Salma Hayek who smirks too much for my taste in
this role. Molina on the other hand is excellent. There are some arty
little touches throughout but the rest of the narrative is often
sentimental and unchallenging. You are generally left with a greater
interest in the life and work of Rivera.
Excellent and highly amusing
article in the Guardian entitled
without a cause".
"Technological accomplishment is
often the product of a can-do rather than a why-do culture. That is why
the recent TV ads for Orange phones suggesting that 80% of us are using
only 10% of the facilities on our mobiles and need to be educated to do so
are misplaced. Orange should be considering instead why 90% of the
facilities on their phones are of no practical use to the vast majority of
Donnie Darko DVD I rented from Blockbusters. Dark,
mysterious, angsty but the lack of a 'juggernaut plot' combines badly with
my jetlag and I leave the last half hour for the morning. Belongs to the
unnamed American genre of leafy small-town suburbs and high schools. Other
members include films like American Beauty, Halloween,
Blue Velvet, The Faculty, Twin Peaks and perhaps even
the surreal Argentinian cinema of Eliseo Subiela The debut films of
talented writer-directors always make interesting viewing and I'm always
stimulated by plotlines that toy with notions of alternative timelines,
but some of the weirdness here is a little mannered. (Drew Barrymore
was executive Producer on this movie.) (6/6/03)
Matrix Reloaded: Ben
Elton once said of the old Ferrero Rocher ad that it seemed as if it had
already had the proverbial piss taken out of it. And indeed for much of
the first hour, Matrix Reloaded felt like a send-up. Everyone talks
in measured epigramatic language, which occasionally provokes a peal of
hilarity from the audience, in that instant unable to believe that the
movie could be taking itself this seriously. You expect someone to utter
"and so it begins" at any minute.
Then along comes the Freeway
sequence, 25 minutes perhaps of sheer cinema exhilaration. This alone
makes seeing this film on the big screen worthwhile. Makes us understand
that this is all just fun. At one point the camera seems to duck
under an oncoming truck to emerge unscathed at the other side.
Just before the Freeway
sequence some light relief had been offered by 'The Merovingian', a
walking embodiment of Old Europe, part Cointreu man, part Herr Flick. That
name itself a knowing acknowledgement of that whole corpus of
pseudo-history, Cathars, Rosicrucians, hidden treasure, secret bloodlines,
Surfer said that it was a good thing the
production team had avoided the temptation to give cameos to well known
thesps, but agreed that he too had thought "oh no its Donald Sutherland"
when the Architect appeared. This was a role that would have fallen to the
likes of Ralph Richardson in another era of Sci-fi. Many parts of the film
seem to be flirting with sci-fi archetypes and cliche. Parts of the Zion
script are pure 'Terminator'. I've never watched The Prisoner
but I'd be prepared to wager that fans of that show experience a sense of
The cast have aged a bit.
Generally all the main players are better as avatars than they are as
ordinary humans. Morpheus attempts to make a rousing speech to the Zion
masses that demonstrates clearly why monotone is his preferred medium of
communication. Surely the scene where Neo has to kiss Monica Belluci
twice, once with passion and once without is an in joke at the expense of
the wooden Mr Reeves? Surfer was unimpressed with the twins. Indeed their
signature special effect suggested that they would make more formidable
foes than they prove in practice.
Zion's night of celebration is
like the worst WOMAD festival you've ever been to. A conscious effort
seems to have been made to suggest that Zion is a society where none of
the familiar inequalities and divisions along race and class lines apply.
And yet how so? Surely all these people were formed inside the world of
the matrix which is an analogue of the one we live in ourselves.
Is there an underlying
philosophy lesson? If there is it is a strange mixture of science and
religion. And the more the plot flirts with non-classical cosmological
ideas, such as multiple versions of key characters and events, the harder
it becomes to maintain our own emotional engagement with the sequence we
actually see in these movies. Narrative depends on a universe with
I learned today
that Antal Szerb died
in a German forced labour camp in 1945. Like Ervin in the story,
he was a catholic of Jewish descent.
Complete Review has this commentary on Szerb's novel by George
Szirtes of the 'Times Literary Supplement': "The book is compulsive and
infuriating by turns, sometimes skating, sometimes lurching, between its
influences. There are elements of genuine paranoid vision, heavy
surrealism, guidebook travelogue, Gothic horror tale, Chestertonian
fantasy, intellectual debate and an uneasy social satire. (...) Journey by
Moonlight is a burning book, a major book, one of those maddeningly uneven
firework displays that serve as much for symptom as artefact."
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Mihàly's
psyche for me is the alternative of passion through abstraction he
pursues. It's also interesting that he finds geography to be such an
aphrodisiac. ("Alone in that profound solitude a man feels after he has
embraced a woman with whom he has nothing in common")
Journey by Moonlight Mihàly
has, partly by accident and partly by design, been separated from his new
wife on the Umbrian plain and is now actively hiding from any pursuers in
hilltop towns "behind God's back". I find much to identify
with in this character: his sense of impermanence, his abstraction and
introversion that make him feel that he is merely playing at being serious
adult human being. He finds passion more in distance than physical
intimacy. This urge to vanish, to give life the slip reminds me of how the
same thoughts occurred to me at the airport in Guatemala City back in
1989. Anyway, I'm really enjoying this novel. 70 pages in and it's not
really about anything other than the personality of its lead protagonist.
reading 'Morocco Modern'. The last chapter showcases the work of
Charles Boccara, a French-educated Tunisian that sits at the centre of
contemporary Moroccan architecture. He is an exponent of architectural
surprises - his designs incorporate niches and attics, because he believes
that such spaces contain the soul and the mystery of a house.
This is an idea that also crops up in my new book Journey by
Moonlight by Antal Szerb. I remember how the basement at No1
Eaton Square felt to Antonio and me like a point of contact with a
mysterious shadowy underworld. Now that the whole place has been gutted
and refurbished, even the basement is a little luxury flat. The old house
has lost a bit of its soul.
Lounge in the sun reading Death in Venice. This is really
the ultimate holiday-gone-wrong tale. It even has the equivalent of the
'nightmare taxi journey from the airport' chestnut - Aschenbach manages to
pick the only Gondolier without a license, a muttering brute that
ominously tells him "you will pay signore" and proceeds to take him
where he doesn't want to go. Right from the start, Aschenbach's trip is
accompanied by a sense of reality "sliding into some bizarre and
grotesque derrangement" and that "the world was undergoing a
dreamlike alienation" and the certainties of his solitary bourgeois
life in Munich unravel on the waters of the Venetian lagoon.
I'll finish Martin Rees' book tonight. One of the key points
I've taken out of it is that the sciences of the very small and the very
big are intimately linked, and both the deep aspects of reality. He
confirms the notion I picked up elsewhere that the vast size and duration
of the cosmos is a pre-requisite for the interesting things that happen in
the mid-scale. The book also reinforces my suspicion that any talk of
chance at the cosmological level is often unhelpful. Rees points out
that a sufficiently large cosmos would inevitably have copies not just of
each of us, but also everything we can see with our most powerful
telescopes. In such as case it's rather pointless to talk of the
probability of other life elsewhere.
I understand the the Big Bang a bit better now. The name is misleading
because it was in no sense a typical explosion as the pressure was the
same all around. Rather it was an expansion, and strangely one that
didn't need to be fed with energy because the gravitational pit that it
created compensates neatly for the rest mass-energy of the universe. The
light we see is itself evidence of the big bang because photons are its
Roger Penrose: "Even aardvarks think their offspring are beautiful".
(He was referring to the pet theories of leading colleagues, but this
quotation could equally be used to poke fun at relativism!)
The suggestion that there may not be any fundamental difference between
a 'real' cosmos and a virtual one appears to give hope of underlying
meaning. Yet, the universe we can contemplate with telescopes and
mathematical genius is extraordinarily quirky. What kind of algorithm
would produce this? Why are tiny asymmetries so important? So much
of the large-scale complexity depends on what was imprinted back when the
universe was the size of a golf ball.
In biology accident seems to play an equally disconcerting role. The
random fate of soup-dwelling protozoa determined the whole genetic line of
our biosphere. Yet Conway-Morris and others say that the phenomenon of
convergence within biology, where separate branches of genotypic evolution
end up with similar phenotypes, suggests that there is some kind of plan
or bias at work. It does not however seem that cosmological randomness has
an analogue of convergence that we can currently detect.
Rees believes that space exploration is held back by its very
professionalism and hopes the kind of people that would choose to become
earthbound explorers and yachtsmen will one day be able to risk themselves
in space. In a similar fashion, I rather hope that some non-expert
contributions could be made to cosmology as well. mathematics may have an
"unreasonable effectiveness...in the physical sciences" (Eugene
Wagner) but it has an unreasonable ineffectiveness as a medium of mass
One random thought that occurred to me during this
read was been that in the end we are just like wrinkles on a sheet of
material. God is neither, good or evil, not our friend. God's the one
stretching the material at the edges until the wrinkles disappear.
Pressing on with
Martin Rees' book. The possibility of the mortality of our species and
perhaps of all life in the universe is something scientists seem to
intuitively reject, as if it would compound the anguish of our own
Freeman Dyson says he finds the notion of a Big Crunch "claustrophobic",
and this in spite of the obviously vast scales involved in the space-time
we can already experience and comprehend. He suggests that infinite
amounts of information could in fact be processed with finite energy
reserves. (Rees quotes Woody Allen : "Eternity is very long especially
towards the end.") Even without a crunch though, there are potentially
other brick walls for life. Expansion takes more and more of the universe
beyond possible reach setting a limit, albeit a large one, to how large a
system can stretch within the universe. The graininess of the universe
also sets a limit to the intricacy that could be established within.
One way to keep up your optimism is to maintain a belief in an
underlying plan. For example, the stuff we know least about such as dark
matter of quintessence might save the day by changing into something else
equally ineffable which will alter the fundamental rules of the game in
favour of Life.
The sun will collapse on us in 5 billion years, and maybe Andromeda
will crash into the Milky Way around the same time making it an even
bigger crisis. But if we've got from soup to Einstein in 1 billion years,
4 more might be enough time to see the development of the kind of
complexity that can save itself.
Cosmic Habitat is very readable. He doesn't construct loads of
showy-offy metaphors like Dawkins but his prose style infers a great deal
of detail and philosophical open-enders that readers can extract and play
with in their own time. The issue of how probably and repeatable our
biosphere is can be approached from two angles: is life actually highly
probable given similar conditions? But are similar conditions quite hard
to come by? It seems that the language of classical science fetters the
debate. In a temporally and spacially-infinite universe, or a multiverse
of all realisable probabilities, is chance a meaningful player? What
conclusions should we draw from the fact that visible reality is not just
a habitat for complex self-organising systems, it appears to be one
itself? One key condition mustn't vary by very much at all if our universe
is to remain 'biophilic' : if Gravity were less weak, stars would not have
to be so large and long-lived, the universe wouldn't be a multilayered
hierarchy of structures and spacetime itself would be shrunk.
Anthony Beevor tells
how two German armies fought to reunite in the forest around Halbe, south
of Berlin. Their aim to was link up and head West because surrender to the
Americans meant safety while surrender to the Soviets probably meant
slavery and death. Many German soldiers were wounded by wooden splinters,
like 18th century sailors - the Russian tanks deliberately fired high into
the trees. Perhaps as 30,000 Germans, 20,000 Russians and 10,000 refugees
died at Halbe. A battle fought to escape the war and its aftermath.
Beevor also describes how
the meaning of rape changed while the Red Army moved in through the Berlin
suburbs. No longer revenge, rape became the act of collecting carnal
booty. Beevor suggests that these behaviours probably tell us something
unsettling about primitive male sexuality, which is only revealed when all
restraint and social norms are suspended. It probably also tells us
something about group behaviour, and indeed Beevor indicates that gang
rape became a source of male bonding ritual.
Some of the troops
facing the Russians were referred to by their own officers as a "casserole"
- a mixture of old meat and green vegetables. Schutzjuden were jews
protected by the Nazis. They included those that helped stage the Berlin
Olympic Games (Must have been popular after the war!)
Baron Cohen has a theory called E-S (Empathising-Systemising) theory -
the average female brain is hardwired for empathising and the average male
brain for systemising. Evidence includes the fact that boys prefer the
ramming game in plastic cars, while girls from aged-7 can tell better when
someone has said something potentially harmful. Newcomers to a group
playing a game are more likely to watch first before jumping in if they
are girls. Boys prefer toys with clear functions like buttons or lights.
At one day old boys look longer at a mechanical mobile. Autism/Asperger
syndrome patients suffer from obsessional need to work out the rules
underlying a system. It is about having a learning style that prefers
depth over breadth, accuracy over gist.
Down on the farm on Sunday we watched the first episode of the BBC's
new part-dramatised documentary about Leonardo Da Vinci. The
programme traced his early fortune of being adopted by his father after an
illegitimate liaison with a peasant girl, then recounted how his lack of
book learning permitted him to observe in new ways as he did not know what
he was supposed to think. His parachute and tank were shown to be very
feasible. Many of the notes he took were written backwards for reading
with the aid of a mirror. He tried to compensate for his own slowness by
painting his last supper fresco on a new kind of dry plaster.
Unfortunately moisture subsequently rose to the surface damaging the work
painting of Ludovico Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani is an
Men like Da Vinci and Socrates are remembered by our culture as bearded
old geniuses, which obscures their earlier histories as predatory young
homosexuals. Da Vinci's wanderings within the Florentine demi-monde
were denounced using the Boca della Verite, a sculpted lion's mouth
into which allegations could be posted. Mental or sexual fragmentation
often seems a spur to creative achievement, some cases involuntary of
course, while other thinkers seems to have the rarer ability to negotiate
their own equilibrium.
natural philosopher Paul Davies (author of
'How to build a Time Machine') has had what amounts to a bit of a moan
about the multiverse theory in the NY Times. He suggests that the
multiverse has been thunk up to compensate for the "just-so" nature
of our own universe, and becomes a theory out of control once you consider
the undeniable possibility of virtual worlds "Gods and worlds, creators
and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in
unbounded space". You can almost hear the noise of his head hitting
the desk. He avoids mentioning any of David Deutsch's 'evidence' for the
multiverse, such as the split screen experiment, which all means his own
time machine must be a very different animal.
Miranda France can sure turn a
turgid phrase - "Argentina was an enigma, an infinite puzzle, like one
of Borges' stories of labyrinths" Her Argentinians are morose
self-styled European exiles endlessly seeking labyrinths within their own
pysches where in fact only banality reigns. Seemingly unable to make any
real observations of the city and its inhabitants, her Buenos Aires oozes
fantasmal gore like the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's 'The Shining':
"Every street and square bore the memory of an atrocity, a promise
unfulfilled" The most telling observation is her own remark to a
fellow passenger on the aeroplane out: "I was a foreign correspondent"
she says, "I wasn't much good at it."
Still, I learned a
few new things about Argentina. That they eat potato gnocchi on the 29th
of each month. That Evita had a little mini-republic for children (perhaps
a bit like Bekinscot but with a state apparatus) constructed out of town.
And that Miranda France's flatmate thought that there were more
psychoanalysts than human beings in BA. Two macabre tales will stay with
me as well. The statue of an angel passing through a door that sits atop a
mausoleum in the Recoleta cemetary - commemorates the unfortunate
end of a a young girl entombed when in a coma. She awoke and started to
scratch and shout, but by that time the key to the tomb had been misplaced
and she had suffocated by the time it was found. Then there's the Museum
of the Morgue which has a collection of heads floating in formaldehyde,
mostly of miscreants and unfortunates from the turn of the 20th century.
One of these, El Pibe Cabeza, a notorious brigand, is represented
not only by his eponymous head, but by patches of skin scraped off to
preserve his tattoos - of Peron, Tango and Sodomy.
Now that I've
finished "Bad Book in Buenos Aires" I have turned to Kapuscinski's
account of the war in Angola - "Another Day of Life". It begins
with him in Luanda, a city of waiting wooden crates. His reportage leaves
you with an abiding image of him sharing the company of books in an
understocked dusty bookstore while frenzied crowds outside fire AK47s at
France's 'Bad Times in Buenos Aires' is certainly readable,
but draws on some fairly superficial observations. She quotes the
statistic that one person dies every two hours from an elevator accident
in the city without question. Just another exotic detail for the travel
writer. But it must be untrue. I mean, that's around 4000 a year. The
Argentinian junta generals that ordered the nation's tango
composers to be more joyful and Carlos Menem's proposed edict to preserve
his favourite team from relegation illustrate the often frivolous and
ultimately powerless nature of Latin American despotism. One of
Guatemala's military rulers also changed the direction of all traffic in
the capital overnight. Mayhem.
An excerpt from
Dawkins' new book was published in The Culture last Sunday.
In previous works he's always managed to drop in an aside - nature may be
cruel and indifferent but we don't have to be. Not much of a theory of
ethics really. Rather middle-class and negative. But now this aside is the
main theme as he tries to squeeze out another popular science bestseller.
You have to doubt whether he's added substantively to the argument.
Once you realise that nature is callous Dawkins says, you can either
revel in it like the Social-Darwinists or wholeheartedly reject it. Not
much of a political theory either.
There's always been something
"that's not my department said Werner Von Braun" about Dawkins' wider
philosophical views. When I went to hear him speaking back in 99 with
Julian Woolford he was being hounded on the moral implications of cloning
and defended himself by drawing a specious distinction between science and
technology - science is just theory, any applications of this theory are
technology and therefore somebody else's problem. Not very impressive for
the "Professor of the Public Understanding of Science" if you ask me.
Would future space colonists be like the God-fearing folk of "Little
House On the Prairie" or would they be more like Argentinians?
Perhaps there's some truth after all in characterising Argentina as a
country colonised first by a wave of European rich, then by even more
waves of European poor, the descendents of whom now feel abandoned at the
end of the world, homesick for a mother culture they never really knew,
and preserve only outmoded parcels of. If the dumbness of the US comes
from the mistaken belief that they have surpassed Europe, the sadness of
the Argentinians comes from the knowledge that they haven't. Utopia
achieved or anguished permanent exile.
Graham Dixon's secret life of Vermeer set out to make the point
that "art gives you what you can't have". Jan Vermeer lived on the edge in
a noisy competitive world it seems. His grand-mother was an uitdragster
(someone that drags stuff out to flog it) and his uncle was a
counterfeitor. He married up into a catholic family and shared his home
with 11 children and 3 other adults including his mother-in-law. The
programme suggested that Vermeer's images of domestic tranquility were all
about those rare moments of real value. Children were almost never
depicted. Peace and tranquility would have been extremely precious -
something he could only reach through art.
Visual perception is
more V's field than mine and she's not buying this and I think she's
right. So very little is known about Vermeer the man, so it's surely very
hard to build a psychological profile (or infer intentions) from surviving
works. V says that a painting of a scene is not just a story about a
scene, but a dialogue or engagement between the artist and that scene. The
communication operates not just on the conscious self but on an
unconscious and emotional level too. When you draw or paint something, you
are often reporting on what reality is telling you, and how it makes you
feel, she says. There seems to me to be a danger of anachronism in
understanding Vermeer as a man seeking peace and transcendence in art but
ultimately brought down by the rat race around him. Tracey Chevalier's
novel "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" depicts Vermeer as a
slightly other-worldly and taciturn figure, compliant with the opposite
sex. Somehow I think he was probably much more dynamic, but it's just an
opinion. Graham Dixon's emotions seem stirred when he makes his final
speech in front of Vermeer's famous view of Delft. But I'm not convinced
that he was making a generalised statement about peace after a storm. This
kind of landscape art is very different from tourist photography. If I
were to sit down to paint my view across the Thames towards the City, as
Vermeer painted his own home town, the end result would be a
representative composite view incorporating years of impressions and a
deep familiarity. Vermeer's moments are not really moments at all. In the
scenes of suspended action he stores away much larger narratives which
even he probably couldn't fully express in words.
I've taken loads
of pictures of Tikal over the years, but if I wanted to represent it, I
would draw upon different impressions laid down in my memory perhaps
jogging them a bit with a refresher visit. The most powerful of all these
memories was that time Surfer and I reached the roof cone of Temple IV
after the late afternoon storm and the jungle steamed like the back of a
racehorse and a wall of luminous cloud rolled in from behind us, covering
the forest canopy like a cake topping leaving only the upper platforms of
temples I, II and II visible in the gloom.
squeezing 'In the Shadow of the Sun' back into my bookshelf,
there's one paragraph right at the end that is worth quoting in full: "The
world of the average African is different indeed. It is a lean world, of
the very simplest, most elementary sort, reduced to several objects: a
single shirt, a single bowl, a handful of grain, a sip of water. Its
richness and diversity are expressed not in material, concrete, palpable
and visible form, but in the symbolic values and meanings that the African
imparts to the most mundane things, imperceptible to the uninitiated on
account of their utter ordinariness. Thus a rooster's feather can become a
lantern lighting the way in darkness, and a drop of oil on a shield that
will protect you from bullets. The slightest object takes on symbolic,
metaphysical weight, because man decided that it would be thus and through
his choice elevated it, transported it into another dimension, into a
higher realm of being - into transcendence."
Brisk walk down chugger alley (Kingsway) at lunchtime to attend a talk
Professor Richard Overy at King's College in the Strand. Overy
got his MA at Cambridge and is something of a World War Two authority,
having published a bio of Goering and a book called
Interrogations which analyses how the key Nazis responded to allied
questioning at Nuremburg. The subject of today's talk was 'Towards a
New World Disorder? The fall-out from the war on Iraq', a topic on
which he spoke for about 25 minutes before discussion began. Apparently,
some effort has been made to set-up a proper debate but they have been
unable to find anyone at King's willing to speak up in favour of
As I sat down the guy next to me was sized me up before asking "Is
this a free event?" !
Overy has a good speaking voice - he
almost sounds like he uses a mike. He began by characterising the current
situation as the biggest watershed in international affairs since 1989 and
argued that the current level of global protest indicates that many people
around the world are aware of the significance of the Iraq war and its
potential to profoundly influence issues in both domestic and external
affairs. Additionally, the juicy potential for fall-out from the crisis
has sucked in historians such as himself, usually reluctant, he said, to
predict the future. (Though perhaps that has always been the secret agenda
of all historians.)
At no point in either Overy's speech or the
subsequent question and answer session was 9-11 mentioned. There was some
debate as to whether a similar crisis-point, albeit less extreme, might
have been reached under Gore's leadership. Overy said that although it
might appear old-fashionedly marxist to say so, the survival and extension
of the existing world economic order simply had to be a factor underlying
the renewed American 'sense of purpose' especially as several members of
the current administration have a distinctly economistic
perspective on world affairs. An audience member later referred to the
New American Century
Organisation website as ground zero for the most dogmatic and scary
expression of these kind of views.
Overy explained how the current
crisis can be traced back through a number of different historical
threads, such as the West's largely unsuccessful efforts to understand the
terms of its confrontation with Islam, and the ambiguity of Britain's
relationships with Europe and America, amongst others. The war has clearly
fostered a sudden sharpening of many issues which had been swept under the
Britain has become Europe's belligerent state, taking part
in every available armed conflict for the last 12 years. Europe will now
have lost many of its illusions about our tendency to act unilaterally.
That there is some sort of resurgent anglo-saxon imperialism at
play here is clear to Overy who described the language of Camp David as
the language of the white man's burden. What should concern us all is that
these men are "less than capable of understanding discourses other than
Surveying the likely consequences, he concluded
that the world will be more dangerous, polarised and lawless. Unrestricted
US state power will create new enemies abroad which will further restrict
liberties at home. He finds the argument that you can't stop fighting once
you have started specious and advises the British government to
declare an immediate cease fire. (Though at the same time suggested that
nothing would get the US to pull out.) He also concluded that the way
forward for Britain would be to orient itself towards Europe in future. I
agree that on an intellectual level this is a choice we can all make. Yet
the polarisation around this issue within British culture and politics is
extreme, and one of the consequences of this war is surely that it surely
will be harder than ever to achieve consensus on the issue.
of the 'questions' were actually rants of varying degrees of coherence.
One man picked up on Overy's suggestion that the Cold war had restrained
the US as much as Russia by asking if what we see now is in effect the
"real post-1945" world order after the historical aberration that was the
Soviet Union. A British-born Iraqi in a wheelchair announced that he saw
himself first and foremost as a muslim and not an Iraqi or a Briton, and
that he and his peers saw the confrontation less as one of resources and
economic control but as an intellectual confrontation between the West and
resurgent 'political' Islam. He noted that in the 70s Iraq had been far
more secular, but that his generation had turned back to the Koran for its
answers. The western powers had, he said, created the current nation
states in the middle east by famously drawing lines in the sand, but now
all arabs saw it as their islamic duty to resist interference regardless
of their view of Saddam.
We can certainly see that In the global
'battle for hearts and minds'
superpower status is less clear-cut. Weaknesses here have been
tellingly exposed over the past 12 months and to some extent military
response was an attempt to overcome these with decisive action. Now that
the action is less than decisive, the communications war has heated up
again, but this is an area where the US has been strategically-weak from
the start. You can't bomb people into democracy. Overy himself observed
that it is historically-observable that the most successful liberations
The discussion at King's ended on a
theme that hinted at issues far more serious than the rights and wrongs of
a single conflict. It would indeed be preferable if the West was led by
individuals that could understand alternative discourses, but this does
not mean a license for unrestricted relativism. There are fundamental
facts at play here which will promote ideological confrontation how ever
much understanding is promoted. The Western system is geared to wealth
creation which in turn creates power. Islam lays much less stress on
economic development and scientific enquiry. It is also more exclusive
than the liberal, tolerant and (in European form) secular western
tradition. These conditions alone will tend to create resentments and fear
on both sides regardless of stated policy.
Has America really
decided to take advantage of the current window of opportunity its status
as sole superpower potentially gives it to remove all possible future
competitive systems and resolve all the world's thorniest issues by force
of arms? Will the war in Iraq bog down and force them back towards
multilateralism? What else can possibly restrain them? (Their pre-war
ultimatum to the UN was surely one of the more worrying demonstrations of
what has been lost along the way to war.) Would we really prefer a
multi-polar nuclear world with loads of competing mutually-exclusive
You can learn a great deal about someone from the
luxuries they retain whilst they are otherwise economising.
'Bad Times in Buenos Aires' last night. It begins a little
unpromisingly. It's as if she got off the plane and immediately rushed off
into the centre of town in search of metaphors. The white-haired being
served by the white-jacketed in elegant 'old Europe' style cafes. A
dilapidated fountain is recruited to the cause, made to symbolise the
state of the nation. More than a hint after just 3 pages, that the
Argentines will come across as a nation of self-obsessed whingers.
It's not very fresh, but I thought I'd post up my own review of
Minority Report from July last year:
doesn't make the transition from provocative short story to blockbuster
movie very convincingly. Roger Ebert said it's a "triumph" and has
"stunning sequences". The latter is true. It is visually
entertaining and provocative but fails on the intellectual level. (There
are parts like the rolling eyeballs that still have me chuckling inside!)
It doesn't seem to know whether it is a silly spoof sci-fi like Judge
Dread, Demolition Man (or any number of Arnie films) or a serious attempt
to make some sort of point. It's vision of the future is never coherent.
You never get a convincing complete world like Blade Runner, it's like all
the parts have been designed by different people. Those funny tube-like
vehicles that park on the side of your apartment would be no bloody use
for carrying a bed back from IKEA, let alone a road trip south of El Paso!
(Though the three-wheeler in AI is the definitive dicky futuristic
vehicle) The premise itself is pretty dumb and required a bit of work to
move it away from the Robocop genre into an area where issues like free
will could be properly examined. Instead you get 3 odd by-products of
gene/drug abuse that can detect murders in advance as long as they occur
in DC and a bizarre red and brown ball system which is never applied
consistently. Given that the fact that these predictions can be averted
proves that the events themselves are not predetermined, and given
everything we know about the western tradition of law and ethics it is
likely that a useful method of preventing crime like this would be taken
just like that, as a useful way of preventing crime, not as a way of
punishing people for crimes that haven't actually been committed. We also
get the painful end game, where the baddy has the plot painstakingly
explained to him for the benefit of the hard of thinking in the audience.
There's also a wierd collection of movie cliches. The cop that has cracked
up due to a terrible event in his past comes from Lethal Weapon via Hot
Shots! The movie has a film-noiryness about it that makes it seem oddly
old fashioned. Some other observations...
- After the franchise
wars, all cars are called Lexus!
- If you want a new car go to the
factory and steal it because nobody actually works there
underground system knows who everyone is by zapping their irises from a
distance. However, if the fantastically incompetent gadget victims called
the Pre-Crime police need to identify a criminal they have to use funny
spider things which have to climb onto your head, open your eyelids and
shine a light into your irises in order to nail you.
the overdressed Police Swat team that have fallen out of a flying
fairground ride will wait patiently downstairs. One will say "I'm going
up" as if it was a pretty unconventional thing for a SWAT team member to
want to do
- GAP will not change at all in the next 50 years
repositioning itself as 20th century retro fashion
- You will need
to learn Tai-Kwondo to operate a PC
- If you want to cheat the Iris
readers you need an eye transplant but that's OK because they can be had
just like illegal abortions in the 60s.
- Eyes keep nicely in
little plastic bags for days.
- IT departments are just as bad in
50 years time. You can be accused of double murder, sentenced to long term
freezing but still nobody has bothered to deactivate your login.
The best place to stick a metal tube into your chin in order to change
your appearance is ducking behind a plinth in a crowded public space.
The movie ends on a note of pure unadulterated Cheese. V even said
"where the hell have they dumped them?". Log fire, crumpled old
paperbacks, a tractor, a lake, no other humans for miles and miles. Is
that Spielberg's idea of a perfect world?
Neuromancer this week almost out of a sense of duty. Remembering it's
distinctive loud blue spine from the bookshelves at No16, I asked Xtofer
last night how he'd fared, suspecting that he must have loathed it -
there are just so many irredeemables interacting rudely with one another
in the narrative. Sure enough, he said he'd abandoned it in disgust. I
myself gave up after Chapter 4 two weeks ago, but am having one last go
now. (Xtofer said he read it on the recommendation of a friend who
subsequently died when his private plan crashed into a mountain in
It owes its landmark status
to the fact that it brought the notions of cyberspace and the
matrix into mainstream culture and defined the
cyberpunk sensibility for future imitators. There undoubtedly are a
few good idea-bites inside, some visionary, some just cute. (The space
station Zion run by Rastas for example)
Part of the problem
with any futuristic writing (especially in the 3rd person) , is the
dilemma of how to position the narrator in relation to contemporary
readers. Cinema simply shows the future to us avoiding the need to mediate
the action through another consciousness. In 'Solaris',
Lem takes you
thousands of years into the future to a distant world only to fill his
space station with dusty books and anglepoise lamps. He's really trying to
ask questions about contemporary epistemology but needs an ineffable alien
intelligence to do it.
In 'Neuromancer' the anglepoise lamps are the standard
motifs of 80s science fiction: space colonialism, Asian ascendancy,
virtual reality drugs, post-apocalyptic urban life. Gibson's voice assumes
familiarity with all the jargon of his world, but it clutters the
narrative. Today's vocabulary would no doubt surprise someone from the 20s
transported into our era - but is jargon just buzzwords? There must be
other more subtle changes in modes of speech over time an author could
So much of American sci-fi is deeply dystopic. Many
outsiders that look in and fear American culture probably also sense this
trajectory towards unpleasant, selfish and brutal future societies. The US
is a nation that is shackled by its mythic past and projects a vision of
its history into its own future, as if the present were a brief respite in
its mythological role as gatherer of the greedy on the frontier where life
is cheap and civilisation a distant luxury.
The key elements of good science fiction writing for me are: that the
location of the action outside of the present or the past is entirely
consistent with the themes that the book wishes to address. That world
described is a coherent vision of a possible future. Neuromancer
doesn't fall down too badly on these, it's just that it doesn't meet the
wider standards of good literature. There's one group in the story
described as Nihilistic Technofetishists and that's as good a
description as any of the kind of person that would enjoy this novel. This
is the little red book of the pasty-faced, black t-shirted,
smelly-armpitted Forbidden Planet subculture of the 80s.
central account of the experience of cyberspace is couched in the kind of
postmodern verbal excess that typically hides an absence of real meaning
or content: "a blurred fragmented mandala of visual information" or
"lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind" or "infinite
neuroelectronic void" Amidst all this non-meaning and non-style,
occasional ideas smile out at you: Simstim, a kind of PC Anywhere
for humans. The omnipresence of coffee franchises (we don't get to find
out if they still torture us with Billy Holiday). Drugs that induce
hallucinations visible to all - dreaming real. Equally
attention-seeking to the noughties reader are the anachronisms. (Remember
the TDK ads in Blade Runner?) like cassettes. (Not forgetting the "microsofts"
people slot into themselves.)
Angel Eyes last night. V's
final judgement was that it promised the big enchilada then left you
covered in nacho crumbs. It did start vaguely promisingly. J Lo's
character, a dyed-blonde policewoman, had the unlikely name of Sharon
Pogue. The dialogue was often well-crafted and there were some suggestions
of the potential for Hitchcock-style suspense and underlying family drama,
but it all descended into horrendous ickiness. I'm often a sucker for
sentimental films however superficial, but nobody in this one seemed
really bothered to make the effort. There's one scene when it's actually
painful to watch J-Lo screwing up her face in an effort to get a tear to
roll out. James Caviezel's final cemetery monologue is also
channel-flickingly un-moving. Funny how in two hours some Directors can
immerse you totally in another world, involve you so deeply in family
strife that you feeling like shouting or chucking household objects
yourself, and others leave you with the impression that in the absence of
close observation only more time on screen could have added to the depth
of the characterisation. (The Director of this particular pavo was
Mexican Luis Mandoki.)
Speilberg's AI:Artificial Intelligence again on Saturday night:
seemed more substantial on the second viewing. Obsessive humans and their
obsessive robots - most likely a theme inherited from Kubrick. Humbert,
Jack Torrance, Dr Harford, HAL 9000, obsessives the lot. Even those very
Spielbergesque post-humans at the end just seem to want toys to play with.
AI's world is more coherent than Minority Report, but it's really only a
backdrop for the questions that the film wants to ask. There are some
powerful scenes like the mecha scrambling over the pile of spare parts to
replace their own missing limbs, jaws etc. And the classic line "let he
who is without sim cast the fist stone." is almost drowned by crowd
noise! I'm not so sure how many of the questions this fable asks are
answered in the course of the narrative. I wonder how much of the original
Kubrick concept was retained and how much of the content is Spielberg
imitating Kubrick. I must have a think around these themes of machine love
and individual uniqueness some time! (I'm sure the version I saw in the
cinema in September 2001 had close ups of the sunken WTC towers.)
were very dismissive of AI in 2001. The use of a robot (as opposed
to some sort of genetically engineered creature) was deemed out of date.
Apparently Kubrick sat on this project for 12 years, in part because he
hoped to cast a real android as David! Brian Aldiss's tale 'Supertoys Last
All Summer Long' was less influential on the final vision than
W.B. Yeats' poem
'The Stolen Child'. There was an extensive use of hidden
puzzles on the Internet as a promo tool followed by a group called
'The Cloudmakers'. The distant
father-son relationship is apparently a Spielberg trademark. Much probably
hinges on whether or not the Director intended the final ending to appear
wholesome and satisfying. One critic asked "who is this movie actually
for?" V noted that the final act was more like a movie for kids and it's
certainly the part where Spielberg ickiness predominates. A building in
"Rough City" that was shaped like a penis was however removed so that the
film could go out as PG-13. In other areas, such as the already noted
obsessiveness and the overall selfishness of the western human flood
survivors a darker side is strongly suggested.
with people that say in public the things that most people just think in
private is that they too have private thoughts.
Kapuscinski's book reports on two bizarre Ugandan tribes. First the
permanently naked Karimojong. The sudden death from disease of most of the
Europeans that manged to encounter them in the 19th century was attributed
to their clothes. The Karimojong therefore regard clothes as tokens of
evil. When Amin was in power, he attempted to make nakedness illegal, but
the tribesmen simply carried around a small cloth which they could wrap
around themselves quickly should they run into the military. The
Karimojong also believe that God gave all the world's cattle to them alone
to look after, so the tribe's main religious ritual involves rustling.
Then there are the Amba. If you thought it was lamentable that many tribal
peoples instinctively treat all outsiders as bearers of evil, consider the
alternative. The Amba uniquely reject the safe view that bad things tend
to come from difference. The end result is a society utterly consumed with
suspicion, paranoia and murderous internecine conflict.
observes in In The Shadow Of The Sun that a tribesman in
Africa tends to view the world outside of his village as unreal, even
irrelevant. This contrast between the local and global perspectives is
very important I think. Right now, you can look at the Iraq crisis either
as a series of diplomatic rows, tokens on a map representing tanks and
troops or you can zoom in and watch Iraqi children using a bomb shelter as
an adventure playground. From the global view we are all bomber pilots.
4000 dead in Afghanistan..no sweat. Strategically necessary. Yet when we
get glimpses of the local view we suffer anxieties. We are individuals,
just like the people whose houses and lives will be destroyed on Wednesday
night, but we are also members of the "international community" who face
some kind of "clear and present danger" from the fanatical poor and other
marginals. Kapuscinski describes thus the different perspectives of
villager and urbanite in Africa: "The newcomer has a wide-angle lens,
which gives him a distant, diminished view, although one with a long
horizontal line, while the local always employs a telescopic lens that
magnifies the slightest detail". Here in London, we are basically
tunnel-dwellers. But occasional global travel and the mass media convince
us to think like "citizens of the world". We carry both lenses but leave
the wide-angle one attached to the camera at most times. Trouble is that
the wide-angle view turns us all into potential armchair tyrants. Death
becomes just a detail. And what of the lens that offers an historical
perspective too? Remember Roowarnda...remember the crusades...remember the
Turkish occupation? Now add black & white film (good versus evil etc.)
though, there are also some people with a predominantly close-up view
which is heavily distorted by atavistic historical perceptions.
Anyway, neither view is always exclusively appropriate. And like
everything in life, balance can mean compromise. But we have to at least
consciously try to achieve this balance in our own live (appropriate to
our role and cultural level?) and to pass it on to our dependents.
"Remember Roowarnda?". Let's give W the benefit of the
doubt. He probably does recollect seeing a load of dead Africans on CNN
and like many has probably internalised the notion that somehow this was
the result of the "international community" not doing something. The fact
that he mentioned Kosovo in the same breath also indicates that he thinks
the two problems were basically ethnic and that the proper role of his
nation's obese military machine should be like the police force at a
football match keeping rival tribes apart. What does remembering Rwanda
actually achieve though? Do we remember just the bits we saw on CNN and
the speeches that followed? Or should we try to figure out what actually
happened? Unlike the majority of African states, Rwanda is not made up of
a multiplicity of tribes. In Rwanda there is just one - the Banyarwanda,
making it the least likely place to encounter serious ethnic conflict in
Africa. However, the Banyarwanda nation has been divided historically into
two separate social castes. The noble Tutsis who owned the sacred
cows, and the humble Hutus that tended to them. (Known as Vaisyas in
India). The elite Tutsis favoured independence in the 1950s. The dastardly
Belgians encouraged the Hutus to take up arms and a bloody revolution
followed in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred in 1959. Once
the feudal system itself was replaced a continual life and death struggle
between the two groups for the limited space within this tiny nation
became inevitable. In 1963 the Tutsis attempt to strike back from Burundi
but are defeated and another 20,000 are hacked to death. Neighbouring
Burundi was also controlled by the Banyarwanda at this time, but the
Tutsis still dominated. When a massacre of Tutsis occurred in Rwanda,
Hutus were massacred in Burundi and vice versa. In the 70s a Hutu
strongman called Habyarimana takes over in Rwanda. The oppressive
dictatorship he imposes blends caste resentments with a yearning for
democracy. In 1990 a Tutsi army from Uganda invades. How is another
massacre prevented? Habyarimana calls up Mitterand and the French seeing
the logic of defending a French-speaking tyrrany against attack from an
English-speaking neighbour deploy paratroopers and Habyarimana is saved.
But over the next 4 years Hutu extremists prepare for a final solution.
The army grows sixfold and paramilitary groups are established. Crucially
though, the call for genocide comes from the Univeristy of Butare, the
intellectuals not the generals or the ignorant masses. Hutu intellectuals
presented an argument which turned the issue into an ethnic one. The Tutsi
are reinvented as outside invaders from the Nile. In 1994 Habyarimana is
downed by a missile while attempting to land at the airport in Kigala and
the genocide that will last 3 months commences. Maybe a million die. But
most are not killed by modern weapons used by trained soldiers, but
bludgeoned to death by machetes, hammers, sticks. This Rwandan genocide
was carefully planned to be a communal act.
What happened in 1994
was a grim episode in a long history of pogroms and bloodbaths. The
"international community" has played a negative role from the outset. As
with Palestine, only a dreamer could imagine these people divvying up the
disputed territory and settling down to live in peace. One or other has
existed in refugee camps plotting revenge for decades. The mere existence
of the other side is the main barrier to the happiness of the other. Only
cynicism or naked aggression can hold back these hatreds. Rwanda becomes
peaceful if you either restore the old feudal system (unlikely) or impose
a brutal and corrupt dictatorship. When people think in these kind of
historical/ethnic categories, they can't be reasoned with. They have a
world-view based on conflict - two into one doesn't fit. You can only
achieve real peace by systematically destroying that world view. But
neither force or diplomacy are much good at that.
Sodeberg/Clooney's Solaris was predictably mysterious. It seemed to
want to retain some of the lugubriousness of Tarkovsky's version, (even
though it was supposed to be a new take on the novel not on the Russian
film), whilst adding some softer western romantic elements and some issue
resolution at the end.
"thriller" atmosphere in parts of the book are mostly discarded, but right
at the end a mysterious extra corpse appears which doesn't seem to follow
from any of the main plot themes and actually undermines some of the
cosiness that has up until that point been introduced to the story.
It's like each version of this fable is a set of dots joined up
slightly differently. Sodeberg takes on emotions that Lem left out, but
creates additional chimeras elsewhere. If Solaris the sentient planet is
something of a stand-in for God, in the Lem novel it's an ineffable,
autistic deity. In the new film, it is mysterious but basically benign
with the power to resolve our inadequacies and incompleteness. I don't
recall that Lem gives us a clear notion of the inner world of the
"visitors", we can only see the mystery from outside. But Sodeberg's
Visitors have memories which we see cinematically. And they are of events
where ONLY they were present, so they can't have been constructed out of
the memories of 'their' humans. (Is this a goof or an intentional clue?)
Maybe someone knows why the Visitors are built of Higg's bosuns
instead of neutrinos in this version. Does it make a difference? Has
science moved on in 30 years to make the neutrino story unlikely?
I read Plato's symposium this week and would recommend it to
anyone. It's a nice short but deep book, 69 pages in the Oxford edition.
The setting is a dinner party in the house of Agathon the playwright in
416BC in Athens. The content is a series of speeches on the nature of
Love, reported thirty years after the event by someone that knows someone
who was one of the gathering of great minds.
It all makes you wish
you belonged to a society so fluent in the idiom of sophisticated
cosmological debate. The greeks are very enigmatic though. They belong
within the western tradition and so much of this table talk is wonderfully
immediate and familiar. On the other hand they are also some way away from
the current manifestation of the western tradition; their world could
almost be some strange sci-fi future-possible.
One of the
immediately bizarre aspects is of course their celebration of
homoeroticism as the sexual norm. Anyone that wants to join the
nature-nurture debate on homosexuality needs to figure these guys into
their explanations. Aristophanes says in his speech that there were once
three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite, which were cut in half. Only
the male halves of the original hermaphrodite sex are now attracted to a
female "other half" implying that homosexuals are the majority and
actually more normal. He also refers to all heterosexuals simply as
"adulterers" because all marriage took place outside the context of sexual
desire. Pausanias says that gay armies would be a more effective fighting
force because people always strive for excellence when surrounded by
lovers and potential lovers. (Shortly after the Symposium was written the
Thracians created such a force, the "Sacred Band" in 378BC.)
ever, the main man is Socrates. He is contrasted with Alcibiades,
flamboyant, alcoholically-liberated and venal politician and ultimately a
total burn-out. Detachment versus immersement, politics versus philosophy,
good looks versus ugliness. Alcibiades has tried to get Socrates into bed,
but ends up being mentally "raped" by the shoeless one. If for
Aristophanes, Love is a lifelong quest for your missing other half, for
Socrates the quest is a gradual ascent towards perfect love, starting with
physical love and ending with love of beauty and goodness. ("Love isn't a
search for a half or a whole unless the whole or the half happens to be
Love isn't a God, claims Socrates, but a spirit,
neither wholly mortal or immortal, knowledgeable or ignorant, and was
conceived when Poverty date-raped Plenty.
"Every human being is both physically and mentally pregnant...Love's
purpose is physical and mental procreation in an attractive medium" -
procreation of either babies or wisdom with the aim of immortality.
(philosophy is another route to immortality because you move your
intellect, the part of you that survives incarnation closer to the world
of perfect forms)
The idea that ignorance is not the same thing as
lack of knowledge is quite powerful. The ignorant are those that neither
love knowledge or desire wisdom. Similarly, not-attractive can be
distinguished from repulsive and not good from bad!