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Monday, October 22, 2018

Giovanni's Room and the Question of Identity

I have been intending to read some James Baldwin, but picked up "Giovanni's Room" only recently. I suppose what particularly fascinates me about Baldwin is the fact that he emigrated to France but continued to write about United States. There was undeniable love for his homeland (and I don't think he tried to hide it), but the love is only able to live outside of the soil of this land.

(Side note: I recently read some fluffy article on the implied differences among words of similar meaning: White people who move to another country are called expatriates, but nonwhites are immigrants or, worse, migrants. They forgot the term reserved for intellectuals: the exiled. But then what exactly are the differences?)

Back to Baldwin.

A debatable element in Giovanni's Room is that the narrator, "I" (David), is a white American man in Paris, not black like the author. Sure, white men have written mountains of books in the voice of nonwhite men and all colors of women, but a black author writing in the voice of a white man makes everyone uncomfortable.

Actually a lot of the character traits in David are counterfactual to Baldwin's own. For example, David has no mother but a doting and possibly alcoholic father who loves him. Baldwin himself had a stepfather who abused him in childhood.

On some level I have felt a kinship to Baldwin before I read anything he wrote. Besides the realization distance is necessary to allow for love and understanding to survive, I also sensed his ambivalence about identity: American or European, hetero- or homosexual, black or white, here or there. Or both and all of them. The ambivalence can be tormenting, but it can also be delicious. More important, it carries a promise of freedom, which is far more urgent and necessary to those who have less of it.

When one has one or more identities that are not dominant in his milieu, be it black, gay, foreign, poor, or any kind of outsideness, he gets to taste a multitude of feelings, because one does not lose the yearning for a sense of belonging and insideness. But standing a little away, sometimes, also allows for a better and more realistic view of things, a bigger picture. Why? Because we do also identify with the dominant and the powerful. Who hasn't read "Pride and Prejudice" and identify with Mr. Darcy or his "lucky" wife? Who hasn't gone on the adventures of the Fellowship of the Ring? Who hasn't slayed dragons and flown X-wing fighters and blown up Death Stars? (Yes, girls too!) So that part is universal. And everything outside of the dominant identity, we can acquire through experience or empathy.

Giovanni's Room is, in some way, about of self-loathing. Making David white focuses our attention on the hatred brought by one's desires. It's also a story about running away, away from home so that one can be at home with oneself.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

King Lear Again

Of all the Shakespeare plays I am fond of --- Henry IV Part 1, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Much Ado, Richard III --- King Lear was the first and is still the closest to my heart. I had never seriously watched any Shakespeare plays until I happened upon a PBS broadcast of NT's production of King Lear starring Ian Holm. Before this I had seen Branagh's movie version of Hamlet, but that hardly endeared me to the Bard. (Even today I remain puzzled and indifferent to this most famous and celebrated of plays.) This Lear, however, decimated me.

This is a strange family. There is no mother. The father acts like a child. The daughters, even the bad ones, behave more like adults. And yet there is so much truth in these bizarre relationships, truth that we do not talk about in polite society, especially the society in which I grew up, where children are expected to worship and obey their parents, until the parents become senile and childish (and sometimes mad).  

The shattering truths in King Lear lie not only in family dynamics though. Watching a recent version starring Anthony Hopkins, I cannot help but be reminded of the state we're in now, everything that is happening, watching people squirming to escape the confrontation: the true nature of the relationships between men and women in this world. 

We have had thousands upon thousands of stories about the power struggles between fathers and sons, and the necessity of patricide to "make a man." Rivers are choked with the corpses of King Laius and Darth Vader. But fathers and daughters, that is a territory rarely encroached. While Cinderella's evil sisters remain a staple of female characters, where else have we seen the likes of Regan and Goneril? Not until we got Cersei Lannister. She is far from the most evil character in ASOIAF, but she has more haters than Ramsay Bolton or Tywin Lannister (in fact both have plenty of fans). Evil with ambition earns some grudging respect for the Duke of Gloucester and even heroism for Macbeth, but Regan and Goneril got their father's vicious curses on their bodies and their wombs. 

Coincidentally, I heard on the radio a piece of news about a recent study that found women prisoners are twice or thrice more likely to be punished, and punished more harshly, for the same infractions than male prisoners. This is consistent with previous studies indicating that female lawyers get disciplined far more harshly than male lawyers for the same unethical behaviors. Even in abstract psychological experiments, people tend to hand down more severe punishment to women than to men for the same bad deeds. Women are held to much higher moral standards than men are, and that's not a uniquely American or Protestant phenomenon. 

The conflict between men and women is pervasive, unconscious, and intractable, and perhaps impossible to resolve, ever. At the heart of it might be the unbearable (at least for men and probably for many women) fact that we are the same. Women are no better or worse than men, including, but not limited to, the same thirst for power and the same need to vanquish their parents in their rite of passage.

(This is perhaps one of the many ways gender conflict echoes racial conflict: What is intolerable is not the difference, but rather the recognition of similarity and commonality and, subsequently, our shared humanity. That's just going too far!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Short Film by Ruben Ostlund

I have seen a theory that the one trait that separates humans and animals is humor, or perhaps sarcasm or irony, I don't remember exactly. Such efforts to support human-exceptionalism have a long history of failure, and one of these days animal psychologists might just devise a clever experiment to prove it wrong. However, I don't believe this theory to begin with, because humor and irony appear to be traits shared by some but not all humans. I have met a few people whom I could not make laugh by presenting jokes that are somewhat convoluted or absurdist. So it is more likely that one of these days some GWAS (genome-wide association studies) data will identify a set of genes that determine who laugh at Jerry Lewis' jokes and who laugh at Ruben Ostlund's jokes.

I have seen two of Ostlund's feature films, Force Majeure and The Square. I laughed and laughed. It's not just him. See also Aki Kaurismaki. I don't know how to explain it, or what the hell is so funny, but I can't stop laughing.

"Incident by a Bank" above is a perfect example. It's actually kind of a thriller. Ostlund reenacts a real incident of bank robbery in this single-take short film. There are tense moments, gunshots fired, a minor act of heroism, and a bit of a chase. It's deceptively simple but in fact technically quite brilliant. But it's also hilarious. I watched it last night and have been chuckling all day like an idiot over the memory of a particular element in this film: a busload of cheering kids slowly driving by. ("3 years of knowledge erased tonight!") Why? Damned if I know.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Last Jedi as a Spiritual Descendant of ESB

I was about 9 or 10 years old when I made my first contact with Star Wars. It was the novelization of "Empire Strikes Back," translated into Chinese. At the time I had been pretty well read in European and Chinese folklore and fairy tales. Its effect on me was both instant and lasting.

Alec Guinness was not wrong when he thought A New Hope was a load of cheap garbage, but ESB, it was another matter. There is something deeply resonant and undeniably powerful in ESB. I read the book over and over and, when I finally got hold of a VHS copy of the movie, watched it numerous times.

Self-proclaimed Star Wars fans who complain that The Last Jedi has strayed from the canon, particularly a good-versus-evil, black-and-white configuration, have obviously not watched and chewed over ESB as I did. While JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens is a more superficially transparent remake of ANH, TLJ is a more faithful remake of ESB and the original trilogy in spirit. Rian Johnson is obviously one of the fans who were even more obsessed with ESB than I was.

It should be noted that it entirely incorrect to believe George Lucas' Star Wars series are about the conflict and struggle between good and evil. Good and evil are not the concepts he used in the story, and that was certainly intentional. It is instead light and dark, which are by no means interchangeable with the Christian (seen through an American lense) concept of good and evil.

Drowned out by the "No, I am your father" shock during the climax of the movie, people have often overlooked the important second act of ESB. Luke Skywalker is directed to the planet Dagobah (an obvious allusion to the Buddhist term "dagoba," i.e., "stupa") to learn the way of Jedi from Yoda. Here in the swamp of Dagobah he is drawn into the dark side of the Force and, after a brief battle with a black figure resembling Darth Vader, he discovers that the head he has cut off is his own. This is a key scene ripe with symbolism (both philosophical and psychoanalytical), but is left undiscussed between Yoda and Luke and between most commentators and the audience.

This line of thinking is extended into Return of the Jedi, in which Luke insists on surrendering to Darth Vader and trying to turn him back to the light side of the Force. While Lucas has been derided for color-coding the characters' costumes with their moral status, one cannot ignore the choice to have Luke wear all black in ROTJ, especially in the final confrontation. Was this merely a ploy to keep the suspense about his potential descent into the dark side? I don't think so. Rather, I think it brings up another overlooked theme about the Force.

In several places, characters mentioned a certain "balance" in the Force, which can only refer to the balance between the light and dark sides. One is then led to infer that a balance (implied: favorable) in the Force is the coexistence of light and dark, not the elimination of the dark side. Unfortunately, Lucas never explicitly declared this idea in any of his movies, including the prequels. Perhaps he was afraid that such an admission --- that the dark side is not only necessary but inevitable --- could alienate a vast number of fans who find it intolerable. Or, perhaps he himself was always somewhat uneasy about it as well. Nevertheless, the idea of "balance" is there, and it seems that Johnson more openly put it in front of us.

Yes, this could bring some discomfort to the mind, particularly to those who confuse light/dark with good/evil. But it is also the element that separates the SW series from the American popular mythology that permeates the American heroic cinema.

Lucas' ambivalence over his own concept is further illustrated in ROTJ. The ending is a cop-out in more ways than one, and many critics have sensed it and wrote about what a disappointment it is after the greatness of ESB. The most appropriate resolution to the struggle between the light and dark sides is, obviously, restoring the balance, i.e., their coexistence. It would have been far more satisfying if Luke and his father die together in an embrace. Or, like the encounter of matter and anti-matter, both are annihilated in a burst of energy. Or even if both go their separate ways after exchanging a piece of each other --- in fact this is hinted at in the mirror image of the robotic hands of both father and son.

Despite some profound insight, we have seen Lucas at times struggling to articulate his ideas with clarity and elegance of symbolism. His difficulty only grew with the prequel trilogy, but the ideas are undeniable. What makes him stand apart from colleagues like Steven Spielberg is his reflection of the self and the darkness in his own identity.

Lucas has talked repeatedly about the Vietnam War as an inspiration for ROTJ. There is a slightly worrisome subtext in this analogy --- Are the short, foreign Vietnamese fighters represented as the much maligned furry aliens? Nevertheless, the meaning of the Vietnam War to him and to the series should not be underestimated. As a white American male, surely he is aware that he himself is the Empire, as much as he (and all of us) would like to identify with the resistance or the Ewoks. What makes him unlike other white, American, male filmmakers and popular entertainment creators is that his self-awareness is stronger, or perhaps his self-deception is weaker. That's no small feat.

This reluctant acceptance of the dark side is more clearly and forcefully embraced in TLJ. Note that the self-awareness and self-critique are definitely there, which is why Yoda's gleeful destruction of the Jedi library was so gloriously satisfying and so consistent with Zen Buddhism. One of my favorite parts of TLJ is the unabashed connection and, in a sense, mirror image between Rey and Kylo Ren. They touched, even. It's important. And best of all neither defeated the other in their final battle. That is the balance that makes the universe live and thrive.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Petyr Baelish of Sichuan: Echoes of the 3 Kingdoms

Sometimes my mind makes unexpected associations. A few days ago I was talking to a couple of friends, who are of Sichuan (or Szechuan) ancestry, about the unique culture of the Sichuan province derived form its unique geographic characteristics. It's a region of fertile land surrounded by nearly impassable mountains. The climate is warm with reliable rainfall. The land is fertile. For millennia, people thrived in this secluded Shangri-la with little interest in the outside world, for they had everything they needed here. The outside world was barely aware of the existence of the haven and had no access to invade or raid it.

I was just explaining to someone else what was actually happening in ASOIAF with Petyr Baelish and his favorite pet, uh, student, Sansa Stark. According to the Sansa chapter in the unpublished Book 6, which was tossed to long-suffering fans by George RR Martin, they are safely tucked away in the impenetrable Vale. Now that Uncle Littlefinger (LF) has wrapped all the Vale lords and their armies around his little finger (no pun intended), he is the only regional leader in the entire Westeros who has stored enough supplies to survive the winter. At the moment, he has neither the military prowess nor advanced weaponry (eg, dragons) to defeat anyone or conquer anyone, but Uncle LF is playing the long game. He is waiting for everyone outside the Vale to kill each other and for the last king or queen standing to starve to death or near-death in the long winter. Then, when it's all over, all he has to do is walk out of the Vale, with dear Sansa on his arm, and the kingdom is his for the taking.

Why is he not worried about being invaded or raided for the precious supplies he has mustered? It is thanks to the geographic features of the Vale, of course, which is ...

... Just like Sichuan.

I've begun to suspect that Petyr Paelish is a mirror image of Zhuge Liang, the beloved prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu, ie, Sichuan, in the Three Kingdom period. Zhuge Liang is quite possible the most famous historical figure in the entire Chinese history, characterized in historical records as a political and military genius who was "supernaturally brilliant." He was an intellectual and couldn't slaughter a chicken if he had to, but he was said to have win multiple battles against enemies that vastly outnumbered his army.

The 3-kingdom problem was, in many ways, fundamentally the same as the war of the 5 kings, or any other such complex situations: No single party can defeat the other 2 parties, but no 2 parties can form a permanent alliance, either. The Shu kingdom was the smallest and least powerful of the three parties in this delicate balance. No one expected it to survive --- and it didn't in the end --- but, for a couple of decades, it was not conquered by either of the other 2 enemies. Later commentators tended to credit Zhuge Liang's genius for this incredible feat, but Shu's advantage was probably more geographical than intellectual. It was tucked away in the mountains that were nearly impossible to invade, and it had plenty of agriculture to support a sizable army without needing to trade with the outside world. Sieges did not work. All of this is eerily similar to the Vale in its current situation, not to mention having a leader who is "supernaturally brilliant" at politics (almost entirely lost in the TV series).

Much like Mr. Zhuge, Mr. Baelish is also an ambitious man and not satisfied with self-preservation alone in this secluded happy little kingdom. For six years (228 to 234 AC), Zhuge Liang attempted to march north multiple times to attack the strongest rival the Kingdom of Wei. Not surprisingly, he failed. The direct cause of the failure was Zhuge's death from disease, but the root cause might simply be that he took a bigger bite than he could chew. Of course, if the entire China were facing an encroaching army of the Others, along with a long winter they bring, Shu could have stayed put and waited for everyone else to freeze to death. Alas, Mr. Zhuge had no such luck. In addition, although we had a glimpse of all the stockpiles and preparations for winter inside the Vale, we have no clear idea of Mr. Baelish's military strength relative to those outside of the mountains. Both the real Sichuan and the fictional Vale are easy to defend, but striking out is an entirely different matter.

If the geographic and political situation were the only similarity between Shu and the Vale, I would have chalked it up to coincidence. However, there is more reason to suppose that the link is intentional rather than an accident. Petry Baelish and Zhuge Liang are extremely similar in some ways: Both are renowned for their cunning and plotting, especially their ability to see ten steps ahead in the chess game than anyone else and play out all possible scenarios in their heads. Both played people against each other like pawns. Both have the ambition to conquer the world. Perhaps most revealing ... Both rule through a useless boy king: LF through Lysa Arryn's son, the sickly Robin; Zhuge through his king nicknamed Ah-Dou (阿斗), whose name later became synonymous with a very weak person or a puppet controlled by someone else. The similarity is striking.

Lastly, while GRRM has never let slip that he was in any way or shape familiar with Chinese history, he did own up to having played the computer game Romance of the Three Kingdoms (originated in Japan). While the primary inspiration of ASOIAF is the Wars of the Roses, there were only TWO sides in that war: House of York and House of Lancaster. Yet, GRRM chose to set up a multiplayer game from the start.


By now we know that a character's historical inspiration isn't necessarily any indication of the character's future fate. Tyrion isn't likely to be killed in battle or by the barbarians that he brings back to Rome, uh, King's Landing and later betrays. Nevertheless, there is a certain delicious irony in Zhuge Liang's demise. I wonder how much this mirroring will carry on. Zhuge could plan and plan and plan and still life interfered. I cannot help but suspect that GRRM has a deep appreciation for life's ironies.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with two teenage children) sitting next to me. The boy kept saying, "His motivation is unclear. Why is he so strange?" He was referring to Timon's showering his "friends" with money and gifts at his own peril. It seems unsatisfactory that Shakespeare should obscure such bizarre behavior or personality. The mother pointed out that such is the tradition of Greek tragedies, and don't forget the play is intentionally set in ancient Greece.

I couldn't help but inject myself into the conversation. "Why does Gatsby throw big parties every night?" Well there's an easy answer --- he wants to announce his presence to the girl across the bay. He wants to demonstrate that he is no longer poor and undesirable. He wants to show Daisy that he now deserves her love.

Is that so different from Timon of Athens?

I pointed out to the boy that bizarre behaviors are common among rich people, contrary to popular American mythology. For every Warren Buffett, you have dozens of Mercers and Kochs, and those are the "normal" ones. The director Robert Richmond modeled his Timon on the legendary weirdo rich man Howard Hughes, with the tics and OCD.

Nevertheless, Timon's desperate need for friends, along with his inability to find any, stabs you straight in the heart. Do we really not feel his motivation in our gut?

If Shakespeare were a true misanthrope, he would confirm Timon's worst nightmare that he truly does have no friends and there truly is no love between people. However, Shakespeare clearly was NOT a misanthrope. In a brilliant bit of casting, Richmond made his steward and one true friend Flavius into a woman. There is a tinge of sexual tension between Timon and Flavius that remains unresolved. Flavius represents real human relationships that Timon is unable to grasp. If we are still too dense to buy into Timon's extreme distrust of humanity, there is another character, General Alcibiades. While he takes revenge against the ungrateful treatment of his fellow Athenians like Coriolanus, his motivation is different from the latter. He is not banished for his own ego; rather, he tried to defend and save a friend. Even in a play that serves up the most angry diatribe against humanity, there is friendship and loyalty.

Maybe this is why Shakespeare's tragedies are so addictive. They're bleak, but they're not all that bleak. He is not an extremist.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Tide of Time

On the way home from Macbeth on Saturday afternoon, the Metro was flooded with people leaving the People's Climate March. There were middle-aged and young people and couples with children, holding cardboard signs supporting environmental policies and protection against climate change, etc., etc.

All signs suggest that it is too late and the earth is on an irreversible course of climate change that will bring warmer temperature, rising sea levels, and extreme weather. Whether these changes spell doom for agriculture and the human society as a whole, there is no reliable economic model to predict. Obviously, this is no reason to stop the effort to curb carbon emission and other types of pollution, but we're kidding ourselves if we believe that we can still turn the tide back to the world of yesterday, even 50 to 70 years ago.

Ironically, millions upon millions of people are still treating climate change as a pure political issue or a conspiracy created by liberals. This stance will continue until their crops fail in scorching droughts and their homes get swallowed in flood and hurricanes.

My mind made a turn and connected climate change with the three witches with prophetic power. It is curious how Macbeth selectively hears and believes the parts of their prophecies he likes and discards the parts that troubles him. We all do this, and we can't help ourselves. If we could put aside all the killings he commits and orders, Macbeth is just another Oedipus Rex. While the orthodoxy considers Macbeth's fate as a result of his own character flaws (greed, ambition, cruelty, megalomania) with a dash of justice, I wonder if it's a lost child of the ancient Greek's mythology, which attributes human fortune to the fickleness of the gods. We only seem to be a creature of cause and effect and we only seem to control our lives via our choices and actions.

Like the pessimistic projection of climate change based on already-collected data, the hypothesis that free will does not objectively exist is also based on some hard-to-dispute scientific evidence, starting with Special Relativity and including the vastness of the unconscious. This is not to say that free will, as a subjective phenomenon, does not operate in the human mind, much like the functions of perception or emotion or cognition. Nevertheless, we probably do not cause or control our realistic lives nearly as consciously and as freely as we would like to believe.

When we think about history, the conventional habit is to trace the cause and effect of significant events to powerful kings and queens and presidents, and their personalities and relationships and competence. The Wars of Roses went on for decades because, see, Henry V died too young, leaving an infant son who was unable to control the factions of his court. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved before we met annihilation because JFK was a smart guy, or maybe he had a really smart brother to help him, or Khruschev was more reasonable than Americans know. We attribute historical events and trends to human motives and reasons. Maybe GW Bush wanted to show his father he was a good son, or maybe his friends wanted to make a few more billions of dollars in profit. Whatever.

But, imagine if you were an alien observing humans like we humans observe ants or plants. You see patterns, some of which are cyclic and some are linear or spiral. Would you give a damn about the motive of each significant event? If you see the species as a whole go to war with each other every 5 to 10 years, or continually, would you give a damn what the human motive is behind each war? If you see the human society obsessively strips its natural environment with increasing efficiency, do you really need to hear their rationalization?

Can we help ourselves? Macbeth can't.

Giovanni's Room and the Question of Identity

I have been intending to read some James Baldwin, but picked up "Giovanni's Room" only recently. I suppose what particularly f...

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