Monday, December 28, 2009

The Least of these my Brethren

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) both take an utterly humane look at a man nearing the end of his life as he knows it. The protagonist in both the films is the kind of man people love to hate and revile, pour scorn on, and otherwise consider the scum of the earth.

Where the Spike Lee film is about the last day before a drug dealer in New York goes to jail, the Aronofsky film is about a showbiz wrestler (one of those who fight choreographed and fake battles in the ring with dialogue and spectacle). Both films are remarkable in that they succeed in humanizing and bringing depth to the kind of person who are generally considered to only have a shallow, dark side.

In 25th Hour, the director juxtaposes the drug dealer's life with his other so-called normal friends (who don't pay the price of their mistakes, whereas he does). This film does not say anything overtly, is more subtle in what it wants to show us. Many critics have justly admired the two amazing stream of consciousness scenes in this film (the first in the protagonist's mind as he pours out his contempt for others as a means of validating himself, and the second in his father's mind as he pours out his fatherly fantasy of letting his son escape the law). Both are poignant in their own way, the second much more because its canvas is far more extended.

In The Wrestler, the director illustrates not just the inner life of the wrestler himself, but also the inner life of a lap dancing woman. It is obvious to see the connection. Both are subjecting their body to a voyeuristic and superficially entertaining abuse in order to make their living. But the similarity ends there. The woman knows that hers is a false life but the wrestler, unable to find any succour in his actual relationships, turns, tragically, back to the ring in order to find meaning and sympathy. In one of the most devastating scenes in recent films, he fights his final battle with a man who, while beating him and taking a beating from him, shows great empathy and understanding towards him during the fight. I mean, who could have thought that these muscle-bound neanderthals could have such depth of character, and while fighting?

Man is complex, and his motivations are complicated. To see a man as evil just because he made a socially reprehensible choice, or because he slipped somewhere where most people don't, is to ignore his vastness, his essential similarity with the rest of us.

And of course, Mickey Rourke and Edward Norton are a pleasure to watch in their performances in the respective films.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Food for Thought, and for the Soul

Pleasurable Consumption is a very vast subject. Once the survival needs of the body are taken care of, what do you look forward to?

Most people then move on to seeking pleasure.

It is not necessary to define pleasure, except to note that certain neurobiological processes are involved.

Cognitive pleasures and affective pleasures are usually interpretative and imaginative in nature. These armchair-pleasures, as it were (e.g. Watching television, communicating over email or over the phone, computer games, listening to music, reading, surfing the internet, indulging in virtual social networking), are to create an imaginative world in the mind, in which narcissism regins supreme. I am the king (or queen) in these virtual worlds.

These pleasures provide the illusion of being connected, while one is increasingly isolated and alone.

This illusion and sense of self-importance needs to be sustained and nurtured by repeated affirmations, hence the addiction to these pleasures, which addiction is reaching epidemic proportion in urban affluent classes.

What, for example, is the essential reason of posting something on Facebook for most people? It is to seek acknowledgment of one's existence, an affirmation of one's tastes, a sense of sharing the intimate details of one's life in an increasingly crowded but lonely world.

And is it not true, that if nobody responds to your posts, nobody replies to your emails, and nobody comments on your status updates, you get depressed?

We are moving from sharing of experiences in the real world (conversations, walks, eating together, singing and dancing, playing together) to sharing in the virtual world (people doing all these, except dancing perhaps, while being physically isolated).

The need to belong, to connect, remains, but given the constraints of modern living, the easiest way in which to fulfill this need is via the global telecommunications network.

Many decry this change, many herald this change.

Just like in a pornographic film, in which the lovers simply and without much of a prelude and fuss engage in sex, digital pleasures are cutting to the chase and addressing the pleasure center without addressing the physical body.

The time is not far when even the eyes and hands (the screen and the keyboard) will be unnecessary. Direct control of the computer from the brain, and direct feedback to the brain. Further down, I speculate that the feedback may even stimulate the sensory centers, to the extent of providing a full sensual experience, completely virtually.

In this paradigm, the body is seen only as a vehicle of geting pleasure, and if pleasure can be directly and instantly delivered to the brain, why bother with physical acts? Why bother getting up from the couch?

More and more, I think, we will see pleasures (and ads, which support them) being more precisely targeted.

Physical health is obviously going to suffer, but are there any other consequences?

I think, firstly, digital entertainment is going to result in intellectual devolution for a vast majority of people. Some will use the new tools to further their understanding, but most will use these to augment their existing biases.

Digital entertainment puts one in control. Whether it be a click of the mouse, or pressing a button to change a channel on the TV, one is enabled to be more and more impatient, selective, and intolerant. Since now one has the power to not perceive what one does not want to, what happens to intellectual growth? There is no incentive (or lack of choice) to watch something which one may not agree with. And disagreement, criticism of one's ideas, and dialectical engagement is the essential ingredient of intellectual growth.

Secondly, facts take a backseat, and perceptions and impressions and opinions become primary. After all, if one's primary interface to the world is through a screen, what is the difference between a war shown in a movie, and a war shown as a news item?

Thirdly, the democratic process is undermined. What is the value of an opinion, if it is based on what you have been told? Driven by what is most visible in the digital world (controlled by media houses), and given that it is too much effort to find out what is really true in a flood of information, most people are going to end up believing what big media needs them to believe.

Fourthly, actual relationships (if any) will get burdened from the stress of conforming to virtual idealizations. What was earlier a teenage fantasy (the Mills and Boon romances) is now an adult expectation, due to the larger and larger role media and its depictions of relationships (and physical beauty, and sex) are playing in our lives.

There are many more consequences, but these derive from the above.


Do you have a choice of disengaging from the virtual/digital world and still not feel lonely, isolated, without anyone to share your experiences with? What if most of your relatives, friends, colleagues are deep in the "matrix"? Will you be able to coax them out? Isn't it true that these days, people resent you if you take them away from their phone, computer or television? What will you do without using the very tools of communication that others are hooked on to?

It is a tough problem, and is going to become much tougher. What are your thoughts on this new world, where with your minds and souls being nourished through wires, your body is only useful as a provider of blood sugar to your brain?

Is the day far when education will be primarily how to learn to use a computer, work will be primarily how to instruct a computer and to create digital content, and entertainment will be primarily hooking on to the computer?

Look around.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Being Touchy

Incident A:

Hundreds respond with outrage and vehemence at the ill-worded and hence misunderstood (but not ill-intended, as later clarified by the company spokesperson) publicity stunt by the international ice-cream vendor Haagen-Dazs.

Incident B:

Lawrence Summers hounded out of Harvard University because of a statement commenting on whether some intellectual differences between men and women were inherent or due to socialization.

And the following remarkable passages from Industrial Society and Its Future by Theodore Kaczynski:

11. When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him (or about groups with whom he identifies) we conclude that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms "negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation. "Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and insist on its replacement by "animal companion." Leftist anthropologists go to great lengths to avoid saying anything about primitive peoples that could conceivably be interpreted as negative. They want to replace the word "primitive" by "nonliterate." They seem almost paranoid about anything that might suggest that any primitive culture is inferior to our own. (We do not mean to imply that primitive cultures ARE inferior to ours. We merely point out the hypersensitivity of leftish anthropologists.)


14. Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as strong as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women may NOT be as strong and as capable as men.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rocket Singh by Shimit Amin

Hmmm, where to start? At the end, I guess!

This film, like Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana (a vignette of which is shown about halfway through the film), is ultimately a moral tale. Yes, the end too nicely wraps the film up. Yes, the ending is convenient. Yes, the change-of-heart of the "villain" is too sudden. But, given the fact that this is a film with a message (more on that below), I found the ending reasonable.

Rocket Singh is the coming of age story of an honest man who does not easily give in to the ways of the world. He tries to do the right thing and he fails (is not effective at his job), succeeds (starts his own venture), FAILS (gets a rude dose of reality which destroys his venture) and SUCCEEDS (all is well, all are happy, nobody yell! music peppy!).

The second FAILURE is an important failure in this film, and that is what makes this film different from other, similar, moral tales. The overriding message is obviously that corruption doesn't pay in the long term. But the subtler message seems to be that it is a bad idea even in the short term. That while pursuing the right end, right means are also important. AYS Corporation is a corrupt company, and its owner, certainly so. But that doesn't give Rocket Singh the justification to take an unapproved loan from him.

I think what the film is trying to say is: There are bad rules (the rules of the game) and the good rules (the rule of law). The first category of rules are pooh-poohed, but the second set of rules are upheld as important. And in my view, the film is sensible in doing so. After the fiasco, one of Rocket Singh's partners in his illegal venture, his immediate boss Nitin, is shown dejectedly applying for a new job while his worried wife and his kids look on. There is only a hint of the legal machinery in the police station, but it is enough for the purposes of the film that the machinery is shown to work as intended.

Even the complaint that Rocket Singh makes against a corrupt client is shown to have had at least some effect. Hence, the film is trying to say, this is not after all a world where just because you are right you can take unlimited liberties, or that just because the world is corrupt you will face no consequences.

The film starts with some extremely well-framed compositions of the common objects in a middle class North Indian home. This was one of the rare films in which a Sikh character is not a caricature but is depicted as a normal human being. Prem Chopra was a pleasant delight to behold as the elderly Papaji (or was it Dadaji) of Rocket Singh.

The screenplay is taut, with nary a scene that drags. The dialogue is excellent, in fact. The pervert sys-admin provides the lion's share of laugh-aloud moments. His lecherous though infantile character is extremely well-done. This is also one of the few mainstream Bollywood films which does not shy away from closing up on a character's face. It is a pleasure to enjoy the uniformly good acting and the facial expressions of the characters.

As a conscious choice, the director does not dive deep into a romantic sub-plot. And the film is better for it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Films Seen Recently

Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, 2008): A curious crime drama where the viewers know more than any single character, and wherefore, the film is less of a whodunnit than a study of how a rather implausible crime and further implausible events are mishandled by the culprit. As in many such films, the deus ex machina denouement is absurd.

Happy Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008): This was my second viewing. Some notes about Poppy: ... However, even if she is at times irritating, it is striking to note that she is an energy provider, and not someone who needs constant bucking up (and hence not an energy sink). So even though her "giving" is ill-advised at times (when others are not receptive, e.g.), it is generally quite harmless. Many others in the film are so wounded inside that they end up burdening others with their sorrow, anguish and general pessimism. Hence, I consider the "burden" she puts on others by almost pushing them to share in her cheerfulness as a happier alternative than to remain aloof, or to burden others by one's sullenness or sour mood.

Of course, if she was more aware, she would modulate her "pushing" as per the situation (when in the film it is almost a monotonically exuberant cheerfulness). It is as if she is a compulsive cheerio (and since the root is compulsion, or her nature, it is not a matter of choice which others can then emulate). And being a compulsive cheerio, she does exacerbate certain situations (e.g. with Scott) in which a calm silence could have been better.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009): Interesting take on human rights and on class warfare, shallow characters and video-game-weaponry mar this otherwise interesting and uncharacteristically misanthropic film.

Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute, 2008): I saw this film after it was highly recommended by a favorite reviewer. Social misfits are interesting character studies. The film is a curious take on race relations in the United States. I also recommend The House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003) for those who like this film.

Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000): Ben Kingsley as a psychopathic gangster in a remarkable, bravura performance. In a flawless white shirt. The starting and the ending of the film are cute and atmospheric.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): An exercise in signature-style, film references and award hunger, the film is notable (as far as I am concerned) only for the strong and memorable performance by Christoph Waltz. The scenes drag on for too long at times, while some reviewers see that as the point. Mr Tarantino never has much to say, but revels in his formal ability to say that little. And his formal ability mostly consists in long takes and inane dialogue. Unimpressed.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008): The film looks good, the actors do their jobs rather well (especially Ms Streep and Ms Davis), but the film is quite flat in tone, and the characters are not deep enough for one to care about them. It pans like a story, not a real occurence. Which is perhaps because, after all, it is a literary adaptation.

Monday, November 09, 2009

On Analyses of Sport Events

I realize that sporting events such as international cricket matches and World Boxing Championships are entertaining because they are exciting, tribal, channels of aggression and adrenaline, etc., and I do not begrudge those who seem to find unending delight in watching these events and cheering for their favorite teams.

However, what I do find quite amusing is the "analysis" of a win or a loss in terms of statistics, "weather conditions", "team morale". As a typical example of this ludicrous post-facto wisdom, read this. (notice the word which is part of the URL).

In short, teams lose because they do not perform well (!). That otherwise intelligent people fall for such analyses simply boggles the mind.

The Pacifist and the Warlord

  • Lord of War (Andrew Niccol, 2005): Nicolas Cage acts as an illegal gunrunner, and this film is a nihilistic look at humans' propensity for violence. Not at all preachy, dripping with irony and black humour (some of which may be found repulsive by compassionate souls), and with some stunning cinematography, the film is not a glorification of Mr Cage's character, but is rather a perplexing treatise on harm and malice. The gunrunner is not malicious at all, but he is engaged in helping others carry out their malice. "I don't want people dead, Agent Valentine. I don't put a gun to anybody's head and make them shoot. But shooting is better for business. But, I prefer people to fire my guns and miss." And further, in a wry moment, he remarks: "They say 'Evil prevails when good men fail to act.' What they ought to say is, 'Evil prevails.'"

  • The Mission (Roland JoffĂ©, 1986): A completely different kind of film from the above: serious, sincere, poetic, a polemic against violence. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons, in a standout performance) is a Jesuit priest in opposition to the colonial powers in 18th century South America. He refuses to resist the violent aggressors, and leads his mission to martyrdom. One wonders at the end if his attachment to pacifism was also in part responsible for the horrific violence to the people under his leadership. One also wonders if peace and love can ever be taught without recourse to divinity. Very often, the religious claptrap is justified because it serves ostensibly noble ends. The film is rightly cherished for its great scenery and lilting music and won the Golden Palm at Cannes. (And it is rather peculiar that a film about the horrors of violent aggression shows a warrior on its poster, rather than, say, a face expressing love and kindness)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

A film not for the faint of heart, or for the weak of mind for that matter (I plead guilty to the charge of Elitism). The film is not just extremely violent, it also raises serious questions about the war of the sexes, about rationality versus nature debate, about religion, and about the nurture instinct versus the desire instinct.

Starting almost operatically, with a very high degree of cinematic control, the film plunges slowly, chapter by chapter, into the dark recesses and chaos of a woman's uncontrollable nature.

There are distinct (if inadvertent) echoes of Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002), especially as it explores the issue of whether female nature inspires violence (in both films, the woman is subjected to horrific violence), the nature of desire and domination (in both films, the woman is a very wilful character till the very end who dominates the man/men emotionally till she is avenged physically by mankind), the drives of sadism (in both films, hurtful violence is part of sexuality), grief and madness, and the treatment of woman as nature (in both films, there is a spectacular shot of the woman being an inseparable part of the green of nature).

I think the film raises serious issues, but I also appreciate Mike D'Angelo when he writes in his open letter to von Trier:
I think you’re in deadly earnest about the nature of grief and its relation to madness. And yet you take it so far over the top, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible not to laugh.
To be fair to von Trier and to the film, I didn't laugh even once. I found the film quite somber and meaningful, but I do agree that some of the scenes might be too much for a normal viewer. von Trier strays as far from his Dogme-95 manifesto as possible: using slow motion, tricks of lighting, rotoscoping, special effects, background music, ... What hasn't changed is the extreme demands he places on his actors. The performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg stands out in my limited film experience as one of the finest and most harrowing performances by an actress. Her final scene with her husband is nothing short of extraordinary.

Nature is not just the trees and the birds, it is also our own impulses and passions. The force of passions scare Her, and (in the pyramid of her fears) her deepest fear is therefore depicted as that of Her own Self. I have to say that I was bemused by the overt symbolism of bondage (a round stone, no less, tied (sic) to the man's leg by the woman). For those who want to explore the nature of self-injury as a form of revenge against one's own sexuality, and who (WARNING) do not flinch easily, I recommend Cutting Moments (Douglas Buck, 1997), a rather disturbing short film.

I find the following comment on IMDB to be very insightful about this film (Warning: SPOILERS):
In the film, “She” — the name of Gainsborg’s character — had been writing a thesis on violence against women through history. She realized that “nature … causes people to do evil things to women,” but concluded that female nature is also part of this cycle; the nature of women inspires violence. As She explains it, women lack complete control over their own bodies, which are animated by satanic spirit.

For her, images such as those she collects of early modern witches copulating with demons, capture an essential truth. Her therapist husband, whose relentless rationalism fails to cure her, resists the inevitability of this truth until the very end.

Gainsbourg’s character, through her sexual frenzies and shifts of mood, seems connected to the natural world of Eden around her. When she observes that “Nature is Satan’s church,” it is not difficult to infer that while Christ was half man, half divine, Antichrist is half woman, half Satanic. Indeed, She does not seem completely in control of herself. Fearing his abandonment, She suddenly brutalizes her husband's genitalia by smashing it with a huge log of wood. Then she just as suddenly switches back to nurturing mode, by her sudden frenzied manual stimulation of his traumatized penis to orgasm. In her brutalizing mode, for example, She bolts a grindstone to his leg, and then throws the wrench under the house to prevent an escape. Later, in her nurturing mode, She wants to remove the grindstone and help her husband back to the house; She looks for the wrench in the toolbox as if she were not aware that she herself had hidden it elsewhere.

Such splitting of her personality recurs. In one (notorious) sequence, She remembers watching her child fall from the window while she did nothing to stop him because she was caught up in sexual ecstasy. When, horrified at her own conduct, She performs a genital self-mutilation, she is trying to protect herself as well as others from this uncontrollable destructive force within herself.

The fact that She herself is horrified by female sexual power seems to undermine any notion that what the film depicts is a result of patriarchal oppression. Rather, it is hard to escape the conclusion that She has rediscovered the truth that He, in his rationalistic naivete, has dismissed out of hand. And their own and the world's
expulsion from Eden — the corruption of the world — was not simply the Fall of Man but the Rise of Woman.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Provocation of the Ego

In interacting with people, how important is it to take cognizance of their egos and their attachments? Is consideration of another's feelings a pandering tactic and a form of manipulation? Or can it be helpful to lessen unnecessary friction?

What do you think? After all this is a slippery slope where one can indulge in manipulation and justify it as saving others from themselves? Spiritual teachers, in particular, are fond of being disingenuous, mystifying, distant, acting as veneration-worthy towards their disciples "for their own good".

Also, it is quite dangerous to presume to know what is good for the other. Is it acceptable to assume, at least in some cases, what is in another's best interests? In those cases, is manipulation justified?

I think that in general, provoking someone's ego and self-defense is counter-productive. The best conversationalists are those who can communicate in a way which does not raise others' defenses needlessly. It is, in my opinion, important to be wary of what can flare up another's tempers and ego and leave him not just where he was or worse, but also distant and angry with the one who is trying to communicate, and so closing the possibilities of further engagement.

However, since ego, temper, passions are what I consider the source of human suffering, how useful is it to sidestep them in order to apply a therapeutic balm? Will it not postpone another's freedom? Is it not more important to point out what is causing the problem, rather than to address it in a temporary way?

The balance that I strike is this: I take care not to provoke people at all when dealing with them functionally (i.e. when my association with them is mandated by circumstances). But between friends, those interested in the human condition, with people who have chosen to associate with me, I assume that they will not be offended no matter what I say.

However, it gets tricky with people who are neither very close, nor entirely functional in one's association with them. In such cases, it is best (I think) to start tentatively, and if the person shows gusto and a non-offending attitude, to amp up the mutual enquiry and questioning. Otherwise, to back off. To try to "do good" to everybody despite their reluctance, is, I think a tad compulsive.

Again, what do you think?

The Burden of Memory

When I was young, whenever I used to come across a news of someone committing suicide, I was perplexed as to why that person did not simply start a new life somewhere else. I considered such people, e.g. a farmer committing suicide due to an unpayable loan, a lover unable to unite with his beloved, as ones who were limiting their options. Life is too vast, I thought, and why end it if one is frustrated in one environment? Why not start over?

Only much later, I realized why not. It may seem trite, but it took me quite a while to experience it myself and thus realize the force of the factor involved.

The invisible threads and burdens of emotional memories bind us wherever we go. One may leave one's family and one's home, one may start a new life elsewhere, but what is to be done about the scars of heart and of emotional ties? Thus, a lover is unable to imagine a life without his beloved. In his valid reckoning, the failed love and the ache will haunt him no matter where he goes. In the same vein, a financially ruined man validly reckons that it will be well nigh impossible for him to rebuild his self-esteem in a new place, and for him to get over the feeling that he ran away like a coward. In the grip of such thoughts, many consider suicide and hence oblivion a better choice than to live with these burdens.

That also explains that when life becomes unbearable, it is the feelings inside which are unbearable, and which are sought to be drowned in addictions, drugs, alcohol, sleep, activity, etc. When there is no avenue to live a life free from these feelings, and when these feelings make one unable to live, one starts considering suicide as a possibility.

In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman examine the possibility of erasing one's hurtful memories so that one may be able to live again. The film does not explore this idea fully, and becomes a tad romantic towards the end, but the idea is immensely powerful. Most of us are so scarred and burdened with our emotional history that to be able to wipe it clean would literally be a new lease of life.

Psychiatry and therapy is primarily to weed out the most persistent of our emotional knots. Mood elevating drugs is an industry in itself. Distractions take us away from ourselves.

But what if one could indeed put the burden away, oneself? Not just dissociate from the painful self and its memories, but to wipe it off? To live a clean and pure life in which not only the emotional past is wiped clean, there is no emotional present to control and no emotional future to be afraid of (or to look forward to).

In essence ... the extirpation of one's heart and soul.

Scary? Inhuman? Too extreme?

That is the promise of Actual Freedom.

Public Enemies by Michael Mann

I consider cinema to be both an art form as well as a medium of experience and provocation. Film lovers may differ in their appreciation of a film. Some consider the style, formal dexterity and virtuosity as more important. Others consider the message and the emotions a film can provoke to be primary. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Public Enemies is a gangster film made by a director who is trying to further the frontiers of film art. There is nothing new, absolutely nothing about the human condition that is illustrated by this film. And moreover, if you watch this film with the expectation of an emotional involvement, you will again be sorely disappointed.

When we recently watched Au Hasard Balthazar, one of the fellow spectators found the film pretentious because, according to him, the director was merely indulging in exhibiting his formal expertise and the film did not raise any important questions. I consider this kind of viewer expectation to be valid, but to look for provocation and lessons in every event is a peculiar kind of narcissism as well.

It is important to meet a film on its own turf. To appreciate a film for what it is trying to do, rather than to be gratified when it fulfills one's expectations (even an expectation of depth), is, I think, an important milestone for a film lover.

Au Hasard Balthazar, for example, is a film about suffering, and in a way, everybody already knows that life can be tough. But Bresson is saying it in a way which is new. Like a painting, or a poem which expresses a familiar sentiment, it is therefore not important for what it depicts, but in how it depicts it.

Public Enemies could not be farther from the Bresson film in its film language. Michael Mann uses gunfire as a brush on his palette. He uses elegaic music, dark hues, operatic sounds, echoing shots in open spaces, reflection and brilliant contrasts, wide angle lenses, and so on, to create a visual feast. There is only a hint of a narrative in this film, which is one gunfight after another, and of a bunch of policemen chasing an iconic law breaker.

To meet a film like Public Enemies at its turf is to try to see what the director is trying to do, and then to judge whether he has been successful or not. In my book, formal experimentation is an admirable quality in itself, and if it works at least at some level to create something which can elicit a "Wow", it succeeds. The opening jailbreak sequence in the Michael Mann film is just one such instance which succeeds spectacularly.

This is a film which needs to be seen on a big screen with a sophisticated audio system. The themes raised by this film (the love of the outlaw, the seduction by a demonic force, the bravado of a life lived in the moment) are mundane as compared to the visual and aural artistry.

I was disappointed that Giovanni Ribisi was not given more screen time, but that is a small gripe.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi by Sudhir Mishra

The film is a better-than-average reiminiscence of a particulary troubled period in modern India. While the 60s (or Sexties, as it is sometimes called) were times of experimentation in the US, in India the youth were waking up to the fact that the promise of freedom had failed, that repression continued in old and new forms. While in the US, the protests against the state were mostly non-violent and non-ambitious, in India the violent Naxalite movement aimed at nothing less than the overthrow of the state apparatus. In recent years, the Naxalite movement has lost much of its ideological high ground, but it is still a grave presence in many tribal and poorer regions of India.

The three main characters in this film differ in their dedication to "change". Siddharth is an idealist, committed to bringing about change, violently if needed. Geeta, who eulogizes and loves him, lives in his shadow. Vikram, hailing from a middle class family, rejects all this talk of "change" and works the system to become wealthy and powerful.

The film is interesting in that it traces the three characters' uncertain trajectories. None ends up in a place they had wanted in the beginning. The cost of waging a war against the organized militia of the state is brought out in sharp focus as it breaks down relationships, makes even the toughest of spirits resign in defeat, and leads to horrendous and callous violence.

Siddharth admits defeat and moves back into the mainstream. Vikram is the victim of circumstances, driven by his love of Geeta. But it is Geeta who finally finds her place in the world. She is one of the strongest women portrayed in recent Indian cinema. Self-assured, never wavering, anguished at times but still not losing hope, she emerges from a life in which she has been living in a shadow of one man after another, and is an elevating presence by the end of the film. One looks forward to more performances from this talented actress.

A rather realistic (and pessimistic) portrait of politics and the police is presented. Patronage still runs strong in modern India, and therefore it is modern only in name.

The direction is good, with attention to detail, but I am hesitant to call it flawless. I seem to feel that editing in Indian art films has actually become worse over the years. Dialogue delivery is at times forced, and gestures (especially laughter and eye movement) are frequently not well-timed.

What also jars is the profusion of English dialogue. I am not sure about the reason why Geeta is depicted as more comfortable in English (and hence the letters to her, written by Vikram and Siddharth, are in English) but not only is this a distancing choice, the accent and facial expressions of Geeta end up portraying her more as a Westerner living in India rather than an Indian girl struggling with family, society, culture. Geeta gives up her marriage almost without any trouble, has a child out of wedlock without any eyebrows being raised, and in general lives with nary a care for social customs. This was the only unrealistic part of the film. It doesn't ruin the film, but I daresay that her character is unrelatable for most Indian women. It is convenient that she is shown as having grown up abroad. A contrast to her character is that of Sujara Chatterjee in Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (Govind Nihalani, 1998), who struggles with a repressive family structure in addition to a repressive state.

There are numerous small characters in this film which are curious and realistic, but don't lend much to the narrative. The narrative is therefore loose. I consider one of the director's earlier films, Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin, which I had the good fortune of catching on television in my adolescence, a much better and tightly narrated film.

The posters of this film are hugely disappointing. They are fashionable and glittering, instead of provocative. Judge for yourself.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I live in North India, and for the past few days, the weather has become distinctly cooler and invigorating. The mornings are crisp. This is also the festive season in India. It was Dussehra a couple weeks back, Karwa Chauth is just past, and Diwali is round the corner.

There is celebration in the air, the markets are decked up, and kids especially are having a great time bursting crackers, eating sweets and are enjoying a forgiving atmosphere of noise and naughtiness.

One of the virtues in Buddhism is that of Mudita, being happy in others' joy (as opposed to being envious or cynical). There was a time, during my Vedanata years, when I used to scoff at circumstantial joys as merely escapism and distraction, but no more.

It is a pleasure to see people happy, even if their happiness derives from their passions or from the environment. Not only is happiness (in whatever form) enabling of an appreciation of being alive (as opposed to the denial of life in religion), it is also a respite for otherwise stressed human beings who spend most of their days in various kinds of struggles.

The "mundane" pleasures of eating, drinking, frolicking, enjoying the lights and sounds, shopping for new things for the house, gambling, getting dressed at one's best, and even elaborate ceremonies at temples, are welcome signs of people enjoying earthly life. Yes, it is consumptive, yes, it is polluting, yes, it is temporary, and one wishes there were more healthy ways of enjoying the festive season... But the joy on people's faces is there, and it is cynical to begrudge it.

During this time, one is filled with good wishes for all, and die-hard fogeys like me wish that instead of buying a "Season's Greetings" card, one could find a card which said "Life's Greetings".

Have a good time, ye all!

(photo courtesy

Friday, October 09, 2009

Labor, Consumption, Alienation

In the knowledge economy, most people earn more than the subsistence level.

Most white collar workers seek an increased standard of living.

The standard is defined largely by the degree and manner of consumption.

Hence the prevailing definition of success is to constantly be in the top percentile of consumers.

Both labor and consumption are expenditures of energy, and both creates margins for the capitalists.

Labor is to help create, and consumption is to help destroy. Both feed each other.

The trick in encouraging consumption is to make it a part of one's identity, as a form of potency in an impotent world.

In the modern world, what one consumes defines oneself. One is perceived according to the costly labels one carries.

To feel powerful after having consumed is the big delusion that markets strive to sustain. To feel as if one is more alive after consumption.

One is willing to live in inhuman conditions in order to have a chance at the consumption carrot which the market dangles before one's eyes.

Consumption leaves one unfulfilled. But since larger carrots are always there, one doesn't suspect the path, only the milestones.

The prime need in a human being to be gratified (in terms of neurotransmitters) is manipulated ceaselessly by the market in both driving him to labor hard, and then to consume hard.

A man riding a powerful SUV and feeling good about it is the result of pervasive brainwashing, but it derives from a primal need in the man.

Without gratification in various ways, one feels alienated. And as more and more gratification is dependent on money and status, one is less and less capable of being self-sufficient for one's happiness.

The owners are not fulfilled as well, of course. But their thresholds of gratification are now so high that thousands of people have to work, and consume, to enable their neurotransmitter levels.

To turn the other way, from gratification and satiation towards joy and contentment, is the key, but it is extremely difficult, owing to the very early programming of a child gearing him towards "worldly" success.

Sex being the core drive, and the competition for mates becoming more fierce with the breakdown of the traditional structures, and with the competing ability determined by one's worldly success, it is biologically counter-intuitive for a person to turn the other way and seek contentment instead of success as defined by one's potential mates.

Since the cycle of alienation, work, consumption, gratification, alienation, work, consumption and gratification is unending, there is burning out, exhaustion and depression.

As the community breaks down, and institutions and markets take over, there is choice only in the degree of one's participation in the economic arena, not in the matter of it. (As in, one can only choose to disengage to a degree, not completely)

To live comfortably by one's own labor is easier than ever before, but to fulfill oneself in the circumstances one finds oneself is not necessarily easier, it may even have become harder than ever before. Fulfilment in normal human beings is a socially measured outcome.

As one disallows society to dictate one's fulfilment, one risks becoming anti-social and even more alienated, as compared to being only asocial. The drop-outs, the various kinds of addicts, and so on. Man is inherently social, and to get cut off from this society (which today encourages alienation) is in itself alienating.

What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Responsibility and Indifference

This post was triggered by reading about J R Oppenheimer's reaction at the successful detonation of a trial atomb bomb, a little prior to bombing of Hiroshima:
Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted "Now!" and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief

To put his reaction in perspective, the bombs killed as many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima alone.

In this case, I am willing to grant he did not have any malice towards the thousands of innocent people in Hiroshima. He was just doing his job. Neither can it be said that he was unaware of the destruction the bomb was going to cause. Hence it is neither malice, nor ignorance. But this was an extremely violent act.

The bombing was a pressure tactic to force Japan to adhere to the terms of surrender.

To be sure, most of us are not directly engaged in destructive acts. However, we are ignorant of the long-term or otherwise distant implications of our acts (on ourselves, as well as on others and on our environment), as is amply borne out by psychological neuroses and environmental pollution. A measure of obliviousness seems to be essential if one is to enjoy the fruits of civilized society.

To what extent is an individual responsible for the consequences of acts in which he acts as a conduit, or a participant? What are your reactions and thoughts on this?

Is absence of malice enough?

(A related earlier post)

Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson's precision in cinema is akin to J M Coetzee's precision in literature. Both share a bleak view of humanity, tempered only by a fleeting hope of individual redemption.

This was my third viewing of this remarkable film. The premise of the film is daring and simple: A donkey and a girl go through life, suffering abuse at the hands of those who have dominion over them. Whereas the donkey (Balthazar) has no choice in what path it takes, the girl (Marie) has little to choose from.

Rife with Biblical symbolism, this film is like a jewel polished to perfection. No image or sound is wasted, no frivolous words are spoken. This is a film in which the narrative is stripped to its bare essentials. Episodic and elliptical in style, the film can perhaps be best summed up in the phrase "Suffering in Silence".

There are films which do not make an overt claim of an absence of a higher power, but which illustrate it. The problem of suffering has long since been advanced as a proof that there is no God, that man is perhaps a higher animal, but an animal nevertheless who deludes himself into creating a benevolent and all-powerful God in his own image.

Many think of their childhoods wistfully and with nostalgia. The happiness during childhood is mostly the happiness of a sheltered existence and an innocence which is more ignorance and underdevelopment than uncorruptedness. In this film, both Balthazar and Marie have their happiest moments in their childhood, while in their later lives, it is one sorrow after another. A child cries not at life, nor at fate, but at something immediate which is achievable. The tears of an adult are deeper because one knows that there is no easy solution. Sorrow is an adult emotion.

The film is a highly compressed portrait of life's miseries. Godard famously called this film "the world in 90 minutes". The misery of social obligations, of adhereing to institutions and their procedures, of participating in a capitalist society, of the dubious promise of love and affection, of the unsatisfactory nature of religious solutions, of contradictory impulses within human beings, of a death without redemption.

An expert user of the Kuleshov Effect, Robert Bresson drains all emotion from faces and from eyes of his models, and demands a very different kind of viewing. This is non-consumptive cinema at its best. One has to actively participate, guess at what the characters must be thinking and feeling, speculate at what the director wants to portray. No explanations are provided, but there is a vision at work. It is not a stainless mirror, into which one can project anything. There is something which is being shown, but it is shown in a way which is neither implicit nor explicit, but which requires interpretation.

This is a hard film to watch if you understand it. And a hard film to watch if you don't. One will be silenced in the former case, and bored in the latter.

Bresson was also a master of atmospheric sound, and of highly surgical framing. His frames are sometimes perceived as incomplete, with only parts of a body or parts of a scene visible, but that very excision makes us focus on what is shown, and what isn't. It is a device to make us imagine more than we see. This film is therefore not just narratively elliptical (not every sequence is temporally or spatially linked to the one prior), but also visually incomplete. Both in the frame itself, and beyond it, one has to imagine what is left undepicted.

A film is constrained temporally in that it has to present something within a certain duration, and without lending indefinite gaps for the viewer to ponder over what has been shown. Unlike in a book, where one can pause at will, a film carries on inexorably at 24 frames per second.

A great film, like an enigmatic woman, therefore, invites you to visit it again, instead of completely revealing itself during the first night. This is a film which has to be watched many times to appreciate its depths.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Freedom and Society

In the past one month, I have not been able to write much on my blog. The reason is simply that I have watched at close hand a situation of conflict where the human condition is palpable in all its sordidness.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. A foxhole is a kind of bomb shelter where there is every possibility of being mortally wounded. The adage is supposed to mean that one becomes a believer when the circumstances are overwhelming, that atheism is simply a reactive condition which is given up when it becomes too much to face life and death squarely. (The film Nastik comes to mind.)

In Albert Camus' The Outsider, the absurd man refuses to compromise by starting to believe. Many others involved in the present conflict, though ostensibly atheists, have turned into believers in Karma, in a "higher power", in "justice beyond the human realm", etc. This situation has therefore been an acid test for me whether my practice of actualism could withstand a highly aggravating set of conditions.

The human condition (or rather, our animal heritage) is much, much more deeply entrenched in us as human beings than our surface beliefs, our rationality, our efforts at being "good" to each other, our inclination to be fair, and so on. When push comes to shove in times of war or in times of deep loss, it is quite shocking to observe to what extent we are still animals.

The question that has been flickering in me is: in the world as it is, is it possible for a human being to live without the constant threat of being targeted by others because of one's rejection of conventional morality, in which one is beholden to no God or man. Willy-nilly, people thrust obligations and morality on a member of society, and to reject morality in a traditional society is seen as a flagrant act of hurting the feelings and sentiments of others and is therefore fraught with danger.

As one moves from a village to a metropolitan city, the weight of an oppressive morality becomes lighter. Similarly, the moral brigades have less of a say in modern states such as Netherlands and France than in, say, India or Pakistan.

The human condition still continues to afflict the dwellers in these liberal regions, but since the social pressures are lesser, an individual has greater freedom to be different.

Freedom in the social realm is in many ways an important factor for a human being to be free from one's inner afflictions. Conventionality and authority not only stifles freedom of action, it also threatens an individual's thirst for experimentation, exploration and enquiry. In societies where the cost of being different is lesser, there is a greater possibility of new discoveries and ideas.

This is a unifying idea which appeals to me because it does not disregard social progress, but also considers it only as a platform for total freedom. In this view, the progress of institutions, the evolution of laws, the education of the illiterate, the advances in medicine are not at all trivial but are the foundations of a tangible platform from which a flight into freedom from one's psychic nature can be attempted.

It is no wonder that the questioning of morality and religion, two cultural artifacts which impose a spurious authority on an individual's thoughts and acts, is more frequent and insistent in advanced societies than in regressive ones.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis

I had heard good things about this film, that this film was existentialist and that it was an ironic tale about human mortality.

To be sure, it is not a bad film. The premise is brilliant, the film is quite entertaining, and it does have many genuinely funny moments. There have been quite a few mainstream films with world-weary cynical protagonists who undergo a change in perspective. About Schmidt, American Beauty and As Good as it Gets spring to mind.

However, in many such films, and especially in this film, the metamorphosis is linked to becoming lovable again. It is as if the measure of a man, and of his life, is to to be able to win the love of a beautiful woman whom he fancies. It is as if love is the answer to the big puzzle, it is as if the woman has it already figured out and the man has to finally reach her level to be happy.

I am not at all objecting to the wise person being a female. This is not a debate about gender. What I am objecting to is the infantile notion that we are good and innocent when we are born and we get corrupted and bad as we grow up. That someone who has refused to grow up and acts emotionally, dreams, thinks wistfully, has romantic notions, likes specific things to eat and to drink, is somehow an evolved and happy person.

Observe the central woman character in As Good as it Gets and in Groundhog Day and you will nary find a thing wrong with her character. She is afflicted with the human condition, but she is portrayed as the ideal to which the fallen man must aspire. And the man is fallen because he doesn't believe in human relationships. And to lend credence to his villainy, he is needlessly, in fact cantankerously, rude, bitter and lonely.

It is as if there are only two ways to live: bitterly, or lovingly. It is as if there can be no kind and generous association without also having love and compassion in one's bosom. It is as if one needs to just reawaken one's "essential" humanity to be able to happy again. Never mind that the "essential" humanity is animal at its core.

In short, such films are retrogressive in the garb of being prescriptive. What is prescribed in most of such films is a regression to an infantile state where good feelings set the standard of what is sensible.

It is instructive to note in these films that the ideal to which a man finally aspires is to be a good husband and a good father.

There is nothing wrong in being a family man (or woman), but as the vast majority of mankind is already married and involved in parenthood, such films trivialize the essential problem of humankind.

The problems of life are brought in sharp focus when the usual solutions are seen to be insufficient. If the usual solutions were good enough, there wouldn't be the mayhem that we see all around us, and within us.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Prosperity and Survival Patterns

In affluent societies, the survival mechanisms wired into our brains at birth are leading to what are now called Lifestyle Diseases. People are trying to balance their propensity for boredom with surrogate activities, their indulgence in calorie-rich food with compensatory exercise, their depressions with their addictions, their heart ailments with surgery, and so on and so forth.

I will not go into the reasons why people like to eat a lot, why they get bored, why they get depressed, why hearts are failing. These are well-understood phenomena.

My question is whether there is a better alternative than to precariously balance (consciously or unconsciously) the ill-effects of our behavior patterns with other behavior patterns. This is an important question because the ill effects mostly stem from a deeper source (our in-built patterns or what was earlier called our unconscious brain) whereas the compensation has to be willed and adhered to consciously. And moreover, the ill effects are usually visible only in late adulthood when it is too late for most people to change their ways.

It is an unfortunate sight to see someone who likes to eat punishing himself by walking on a treadmill, or someone compulsively indulging in mobile phone games to ward off boredom.

Is there another way to live in these times, in which neither indulgence nor compensation are there in the picture? Indulgence is a constant danger even if one doesn't want to indulge. There are strong financial forces working to make people consume and then regret. Can an individual hope to live these days without constantly worrying whether he or she is living a healthy life?

This is a rather hard problem. I am pretty sure that the stresses of modern life (e.g. of living in extremely dense habitats, of having to appear likable throughout the day at one's workplace, of having to protect one's money from a constant atmosphere of financial predation, etc.) lead one to want to relieve one's stresses by consumption which, though having some positive mood-elevating effects on the various neurotransmitters, plays further havoc with one's health.

Non-consumptive reliefs such as meditation or breathing exercises are not to be sneezed at, but they are still in the realm of compensatory acts. Meditators usually need their daily "fix" of meditation in order to go through the day. Yes, meditation is healthier than having a drink in the morning, but the question is: what is the causation of the stress which is being relieved?

It is interesting to read Richard's notes on how he experiences hunger. In short, he doesn't.

[Respondent]: ‘Do you experience hunger?

[Richard]: ‘No (all appetitive desires are null and void).

[Co-Respondent]: ‘If you don’t eat for a day or two, there would be certain sensations in your body which are usually classified as hunger by normal humans.

[Richard]: ‘The bodily sensation of an empty stomach is not what is usually classified as hunger by normal humans – and it does not take a day or two of not eating anyway but only a few hours – as what is usually classified by normal humans as hunger is a feeling of being hungry which arises from that sensation ... which feeling desists (in normal humans) when replaced by a feeling of satiety which arises from the sensation of a full stomach after having eaten.

[Co-Respondent]: ‘This is certainly new to me.

[Richard]: ‘Laboratory tests have shown that stimulation of the lateral nucleus of the hypothalamus (known as the ‘feeding centre’) activates feeding in animals – whereas lesions of the lateral nucleus abolish all desire to eat (aphagia) – and that stimulation of the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (aka the ‘satiety centre’) inhibits feeding ... whereas lesions of the ventromedial nucleus can lead to compulsive eating (hyperphagia).

Incidentally, it has been found that opiates also stimulate the ventromedial nucleus (hence the use of amphetamine for control of obesity)’.

In my thinking, environmental stresses and harmful internal stresses both need to be addressed. It is silly to claim that people can be happy and calm even in a highly stressful environ (for example a lawless city, or a war zone). Man to a very great extent is influenced by his environment and to claim otherwise is to simply advocate dissociation.

- Since environmental stresses (e.g. pollution, inducements to consumption, crowding, cognitive overload, threats to health and wealth) are not within the power of a single individual to tackle, one can either be very rich and protect oneself from most of these stresses (but at the cost of the new stress of having to sustain a high level of prosperity), or one can just remove oneself from a stressful environment and retreat to a small town, have a less stressful job, to less polluted surroundings.

- On the other hand, I believe that to a large extent, personal psychological ailments are within the power of an individual to address. There are various approaches one can take to address one's in-born lust, greed, insecurity, fear of death, need to impress, etc. It is not my intention here to go into the merits of any particular approach.

The situation is complicated because as an adult, personal psychological ailments and environmental stresses feed on each other. Bored people seek consumption, insecure people seek branded goods, loveless beings want to appear attractive, etc. It is hard to break this vicious cycle of personal and environmental stress. People get addicted to their ailments: to their need for a consumptive fix. It can be hard to break this pattern.

Some suggestions:

- A short vacation to a place where man-made influences are few can act as a bootstrapping catalyst.

- Spending time with people who are much below or much above one's financial standing can be a sobering reflection on one's lifestyle and aspirations.

- Experimenting, for fun, with one's consumption patterns. Spending the whole day in front of the TV (and nothing else), eating the same meal twice a day for a week, not talking to anybody for 24 hours, going blindfolded for a whole weekend inside the house, can be pattern-breaking activities. Such experiments just might bring that one is a compulsive addict in ways that one didn't realize, and that one is deeply sick.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Two Parables

Before the Law by Franz Kafka

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, ‘just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the flea ‘ s as well to help him and to change the doorkeep er’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

(Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. Copyright © 1971, Schocken Books.)


Parable VI (From Darkness to Light, J Krishnamurti)

The mountains look on the town and the town looks upon the sea. It was the time of many flowers and calm blue skies. In a big house, where the trees gathered around there lived a man, rich in the possession of things. He had visited the capitals of many lands in search of a cure. He was lame, scarcely able to walk. A stranger from the distant and sunny lands, came by chance to the town that looks upon the sea. The lame man and the distant stranger passed by, touching each other in a narrow lane. The lame man was healed, and the town whispered in amazement. On the next day, the man made whole was taken to prison for some immorality.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Wisdom of Humanity

Strikes a deep chord, and sells in millions, is translated into hundreds of languages, but ... it keeps sorrow alive.

Exhibit A: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Some excerpts:

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”

“One’s Personal Legend is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is."

“The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there”

“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand”

“At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke – the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two pairs of eyes met, as had theirs here at the well."

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

"That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke, his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the World. It said that all people who are happy have God within them. And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert, as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it. “Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer whant to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them – the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place. “So, we, their hearts, speak more and more softly. We never stop speaking out, but we begin to hope that our words won’t be heard: we don’t want people to suffer because they don’t follow their hearts.” “why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?” the boy asked the alchemist. “Because that’s what makes the heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer.” From then on, the boy understood his heart. He asked it, please, never stop speaking to him"

Exhibit B: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Some excerpts:

"Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

"But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart..."

""If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, 'Somewhere, my flower is there...' But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened..."

"At one time I say to myself: "Surely not! The little prince shuts his flower under her glass globe every night, and he watches over his sheep very carefully..." Then I am happy. And there is sweetness in the laughter of all the stars.

But at another time I say to myself: "At some moment or other one is absent-minded, and that is enough! On some one evening he forgot the glass globe, or the sheep got out, without making any noise, in the night..." And then the little bells are changed to tears..."

"Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..."

"One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed... "


In both, the heart and its sentiments are extolled over the facts of life. Both appeal to our very being. If something is a hit, I consider it an exposition of human nature, a normative book rather than a prescriptive one.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The New World by Terrence Malick

Nature in Malick's films is a protagonist in its own right, the changing seasons transforming the course of the other characters' lives. Having a poetic and a painter's vision, he can properly be called a romantic director.

In The New World the romanticism is of three kinds: the tranquility of nature, the "pure" love between Smith and the princess, and the nostalgia of Eden as depicted in the lifestyle of the native Americans. The film is a long one, and though I am not one to get restless at languid or static shots, the film does become somewhat cliched towards the end. The best part for me was The Stranger which in great poetic fashion depicted the flowering of love between two people.

And the film is also interesting because though one may be forgiven for eulogizing love in the first half of the film, and for flowing along the river of feelings, the pain and suffering which it entails in the second half is no small cautionary tale.


On a related note, I recently watched a 12-minute short film. The film is about love. Though the film is not profound, I will leave you to interpret what it says about alienation, longing and the void within. I shudder to think of the dependence the man is going to fall into.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aphorisms on Virtue

An economic system in which charity is needed is unjust.

To do help as a virtuous activity is nobly egoistic. It does not whittle down the ego, it exalts it.

To do "good" and to feel good about it is as pernicious as to do "bad" and to feel good about it.

A selfless act can not lead to feeling good. In a selfless act, there is no smoke after the fire.

Feeling good is not a crime, but neither is selfishness. The danger is that virtue, which is at best altruism in operation, can be mistaken for selflessness.

To be free of the need of feeling good is the ground of selflessness. To do something because one cannot not do it.

Good acts and good feelings are therapeutic. As such, they are means to free oneself from the need of good acts and good feelings. They are not ends in themselves.

Compassion is expended in charity. If it is not thus channeled, but instead directed to fuel the pursuit of the end of neediness in oneself, can it not be revolutionary?

To not be psychologically needy is your ultimate gift to humanity. Other gifts pale in comparison.

If you are needy yourself (psychologically), you are buying your good feelings in a dangerous way by indulging in virtue. Dangerous because it is praised so universally.

Humanity can be helped, but it is a cop-out to start helping others instead of putting oneself first beyond the need of help. It is a cop-out because you were now enabled to seek something beyond physical freedom, and you chose something easier.

Physical co-dependence is understandable, as we all co-habit the earth, but is buying virtue not parasitical?

Most people's virtue extends insofar as it is not personally discomforting.

If the roots are sick, is not washing the leaves an eye-wash? To fix the roots is not easy, but washing the leaves is dangerous, for it gives the illusion of health.

Discontent is extinguished through virtue. It is akin to guilt getting extinguished through apology. The momentum of one's realization of one's nature or of an oppressive system is brought to a halt because "all is well now".

The fire of discontent is stoked, made more fierce, by the lack of feel-good solutions.

An effortless benevolence is not virtuous. It has no cause, and hence it has no agenda for "me". It does not seek objects of charity.

To seek evolution through virtue is to aggrandize oneself.

On Meaningfulness

What makes something meaningful?

In essence, a meaningful life or a meaningful act goes beyond its vicinity. The here-and-now is implicit, it does not require any meaning to exist. Man is discontented with the here-and-now. A journey, or an arrow fired into the future, sustains the desire to live.

To "look forward to something" gives potency to the present moment to be meaningful. If something makes one "come alive", then it is an opportune moment to find out what nutrients does that something have.

The journey from discontent to contentment always begins by rejecting the given meanings of life and proceeding towards meaninglessness. The lack of meaning is frightful, and the apprehension of a meaningless life is painful, and that fear and pain keeps us tied to our hollow meanings, and we do all that we can to avoid contemplation of our so-called absurdity.

Krishnamurti was not wrong in that psychological time sustains "me", but his here-and-now was not of this world.

To be myself, as this body in this infinite universe, is ceasing to find pleasure in what I am not. It is not true that illusion is only pain, otherwise why would it be so alluring? To be sure, there is pleasure aplenty in illusion, as is there pain, and it is the ever changing flux of my inner world that sustains "my" existence.

To reject the pleasure of a known illusion is the mark of integrity. That man is not at fault who is not aware of his illusions, and who is blissful or sorrowful in his ignorance. It is the divided man who is at fault, who knows what he knows, but cannot act upon it. To be integrated is simply to refuse the charm of illusion once one has seen its true face.

The journey from illusion to fact goes through the valley of fear. It is infinitely easier to exchange one illusion for another than to exchange an illusion for a fact.

That is because illusions are meaningful, they are potent and nourishing, whereas facts are simply existent. In a way, facts are barren. They cannot sustain "me". "I" need "my" fix through my meanings and illusions. "I" am essentially an addict of illusion.

And it is wrong to say that it is directed efforts which sustain "me". They cannot fill a man's heart. Of a beast perhaps... ("The struggle enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." -Albert Camus) It is the meaning in the outcomes of those efforts which sustain "me". Sisyphus is not happy rolling the stone, but he is perhaps happy because he sees the direction in which he is rolling the stone. It is the illusion of a meaningful destination that keeps him happy.

Once you strip meaning from the direction, you also necessarily strip the passion for the destination.

But without direction, without passion, without a destination, without meaning, can a man live? The entire wisdom of humanity says No. And that pessimism is "mine". It is true that "I" cannot live without meaning.

To embrace meaninglessness without flinching is to perhaps come upon the magical. To find out that meaning is not essential, that existence is wondrous without a reason, that one need not look at the future to live in the present.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Comedies, seen recently

  • The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009): Hollywood comedies fall into some distinct genres, and this one is the male-bonding one. Distinctly misogynistic (and celebrating the blessed stance in which males piss), it revolves around three friends and a sub-human comic relief who get sloshed out one night in Vegas. When comedy is not situational but depends upon characters or, even more pathetically, upon the race or gender of the character, it is time to doubt the inventiveness of the screenwriter. Stupidity and seeing someone piss improperly is fun, but it is a rather low kind of fun.

  • A Shock to the System (Jan Egleson, 1990): A delightful black comedy, even though venturing into some thriller aspects towards the end. Stories of comeuppance have a strange charm. The enormous popularity of Roahld Dahl's stories are a testament to this (I especially recommend Taste and Mrs Bixby's and the Colonel's Coat from The Best of Roald Dahl). Michael Caine is generally a very fine actor, and his subtle expressions have just the right amount of mockery as a protagonist in this film. Treated unfairly by those who think there is no Karma, here comes Graham Marshall! People treat him like there is no justice in the world, and he shows them, and boy how he shows them!

  • Stuck (Stuart Gordon, 2007): A black comedy in which you might flinch once or twice, this is a rather curious look at the lack of remorse in a professional caretaker. Beset with issues of her own, she delivers the best line of the film after she has tried and failed to kill a poor and under-utilized Stephen Rea: "Why are you doing this to me?" Mena Suvari has a face which looks quite naturally like someone who needs a good spanking from a catholic father (to put some morality into her, damn her locks!). And oh does she burn in hell. Dahl would again smile.

  • Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007): Speaking of Catholics, now this is something else. A film which finally makes fun of virginity in a way you can only shake your head at (with glee!), the tagline is entirely appropriate: "Every rose has its thorns." Very very underrated, and criminally overlooked, this deserves to be seen, if only for a lesson on what dogs really like to eat (pun intended).

  • Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998): Highly recommended! This could have been (and fortunately, isn't) a male bonding type of comedy. The Hangover seems to be a lesser version of this. It is not that the characters react in an over-the-top manner, it is precisely because of the (quite human and entirely believable, mind you) distinct strain of stress in each character (and they all love each other) that this film is hilarious. It is also a cutting commentary on family life (husband and wife, parents and children, brother and brother). And what a character Christian Slater has in this film! The dialogues are a work of genius. Werner Erhard will be turning in his grave (if and when, of course) at the mockery of self-help and personal growth movement. The last scene begins as a pantomine by Cameron Diaz and becomes surreal in its intensity as it goes on. The misogyny is there, but it is more nuanced, and that is why it is more, ahem, fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mountaineer

Once upon a time, a man who lived near a hilly range decided to climb the highest peak amongst those mountains. He gathered a few friends one evening, told them of his plans and started before dawn the next day.

As he started to climb, he met many people and was very happy conversing with them. He delighted in the company of fellow climbers, but was a little dismayed that only very few were aiming at reaching the highest peak. He never tired of talking with them about the climb and about the peak.

But as he climbed higher and higher, the company dwindled. Now he saw tents pitched with his fellow hikers having made a home there, and he met only two men in an entire week who were still climbing.

As he went still higher, he become not a little tired and short of breath, and was moreover mortally afraid that there would be nobody to help him in case he collapsed.

In his tiredness, whenever he looked up, he was blinded by the harsh sunlight and could not see the peak that was his destination. He started shifting in and out of fantastic hallucinations.

Immensely lonely, he wondered in his delirium why there were so few people nearby when he was no near the peak. He could not believe that nobody else wanted to reach the peak that he so desired to stand upon. He became forlorn and confused and doubted if he was on an altogether wrong path.

He looked down in the plains and saw multitudes frolicking, laughing, crying and fighting. He had a great urge to turn back, as the way forward was treacherous and uncertain whereas the view downhill was comforting in its familiarity.

He sat down wearily, and as he turned his eyes away from the peak and the sun, he saw a single eagle gracefully gliding in a circle, alone, unconcerned. And then as he looked down into the plains, he saw a great swirl of birds following each other in a pattern.

He closed his eyes and a deep stillness came over him. Blood rushed to his white hands and to his cold feet, and with a surge of energy he ran to the peak and cried with joy.

In that duration-less moment, he stood straight on his two feet, without wavering, with his eyes firm and unmoving, while the gliding eagle vanished from his sight into a cloud.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Back to Nature, or Forward?

Exhibit A

Theodore Kaczynski: A bright dot on the long strip of dissenters against the inexorable march of progress, a man deeply troubled by the usurpation of individual freedom through technology and institutionalization, a scholar who taught at the University of Berkeley, born 1942, and a man who is currently in life imprisonment in a maximum security Supermax prison in USA for mail-bombing, among other things.

Also known as the Unabomber. His manifesto, published 1995, is a remarkable document from the annals of twentieth century. I also highly recommend his short story, The Ship of Fools

According to him, "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world."

A few excerpts from the manifesto:
We use the term "surrogate activity" to designate an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, or let us say, merely for the sake of the "fulfillment" that they get from pursuing the goal. Here is a rule of thumb for the identification of surrogate activities. Given a person who devotes much time and energy to the pursuit of goal X, ask yourself this: If he had to devote most of his time and energy to satisfying his biological needs, and if that effort required him to use his physical and mental facilities in a varied and interesting way, would he feel seriously deprived because he did not attain goal X? If the answer is no, then the person's pursuit of a goal X is a surrogate activity. Hirohito's studies in marine biology clearly constituted a surrogate activity, since it is pretty certain that if Hirohito had had to spend his time working at interesting non-scientific tasks in order to obtain the necessities of life, he would not have felt deprived because he didn't know all about the anatomy and life-cycles of marine animals. On the other hand the pursuit of sex and love (for example) is not a surrogate activity, because most people, even if their existence were otherwise satisfactory, would feel deprived if they passed their lives without ever having a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. (But pursuit of an excessive amount of sex, more than one really needs, can be a surrogate activity.)


We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group.
The more drives there are in the third group, the more there is frustration, anger, eventually defeatism, depression, etc.


In modern industrial society natural human drives tend to be pushed into the first and third groups, and the second group tends to consist increasingly of artificially created drives.


We suggest that modern man's obsession with longevity, and with maintaining physical vigor and sexual attractiveness to an advanced age, is a symptom of unfulfillment resulting from deprivation with respect to the power process. The "mid-life crisis" also is such a symptom. So is the lack of interest in having children that is fairly common in modern society but almost unheard-of in primitive societies.


In response to the arguments of this section someone will say, "Society must find a way to give people the opportunity to go through the power process." For such people the value of the opportunity is destroyed by the very fact that society gives it to them. What they need is to find or make their own opportunities. As long as the system GIVES them their opportunities it still has them on a leash. To attain autonomy they must get off that leash.

Exhibit B

The book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, published in 1992. This goes further than "Industrial Society and Its Future" and considers agricultural revolution itself as the seed of destabilization on this planet.

A few excerpts:
Ishmael: There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.

Ishmael: One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets.

Ishmael: What makes it so striking is the fact that there is absolutely nothing like this among the Leavers.

Ishmael: What were the prophets trying to accomplish here? What were they here to do?

Alan Lomax: They were here to straighten us out and tell us how we ought to live.

Ishmael: But why? Why do you need prophets to tell you how you ought to live? Why do you need anyone to tell you how you ought to live?

Alan Lomax: We need prophets to tell us how we ought to live, because otherwise we wouldn't know.

Ishmael: Why is that? What does Mother Culture have to say?

Alan Lomax: there's no such thing as certain knowledge about how people should live. It's just not available, and that's why we don't have it.

Ishmael: Has anyone ever said, "Well, we have certain knowledge about all these other things, why don't we see if any such knowledge can be found about how to live?"

Ishmael: Considering the fact that this is by far the most important problem mankind has to solve has ever had to solve you'd think there would be a whole branch of science devoted to it. Instead, we find that not a single one of you has ever wondered whether any such knowledge is even out there to be obtained.

Ishmael: Not a very scientific procedure for such a scientific people.

Ishmael: We now know two highly important things about people, Ishmael said, at least according to Taker mythology. One, there's something fundamentally wrong with them, and, two, they have no certain knowledge about how they ought to live and never will have any. It seems as though there should be a connection between these two things.

Ishmael: Perhaps in fact the two things are actually one thing. Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn't know how he ought to live.

Ishmael: We now have in place all the major elements of your culture's explanation of how things came to be this way. The world was given to man to turn into a paradise, but he's always screwed it up, because he's fundamentally flawed. He might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn't and he never will, because no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he's probably just going to go on screwing it up.

Ishmael: With nothing but this wretched story to enact, it's no wonder so many of you spend your lives stoned on drugs or booze or television. It's no wonder so many of you go mad or become suicidal.

Exhibit C

Masanobu Fukuoka
, the developer of the so-called Do-Nothing Farming. An excerpt from his book, The One Straw Revolution:
When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do. Engineers cannot seem to get this through their heads. These countermeasures are all based on too narrow a definition of what is wrong. Human measures and countermeasures proceed from limited scientific truth and judgment. A true solution can never come about in this way.

It is not in dispute that humans have messed up their habitat (through pollution) and their minds (through neuroses) in ways too many to list. And I do not for one moment disagree with the listing of symptoms by the three authors above.

But what is the essential cause of our propensity for greed and destruction? Is it our knowledge (and the "arrogance" that it leads to), or is it something else? I submit that the primary reason is instinctive, and technology and tools are used for furthering the goals of that instinct.

There are at least two ways out of this quandary:

The Easy One: to go back to nature, and live unconsciously, and surrender the (howsoever incomplete) scientific knowledge gained till date, or,

The Difficult One: to move forward, to change ourselves, to address the instincts in operation, and discover better and more consciously harmonious ways to live and prosper.

In the former, not only is it going to be impossible to convince the vast majority of human beings to turn back the clock, it is moreover guaranteed that the sorry state at present will be repeated in due time. Since the drive for power and knowledge will remain, it is only a matter of time that another metaphorical northern hemisphere forms itself and starts exploiting the south, or another agriculturalist is born and starts farming.

In the latter, there is at least a chance that we may yet redeem ourselves. For thousands of years we have been searching for a way to live happily and harmlessly, and why be so pessimistic that humans will never find it?

Mr Kaczynski, Mr Quinn and Mr Fukuoka are the kind of people who deserve admiration for the deep problems they have tried to tackle, but their solutions fall short of addressing the root causes.

To take away power (read knowledge) from an animal can lessen the damage that that animal can cause, but a powerless animal is still an animal who will not stop seeking power, and who will look for opportunities in whatever form to further its goals.

To regress into wild nature is impossible, given the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex, and the thinking it enables, is what makes humans "unnatural". (I use the word "nature" here in the context set in the "man versus nature" debate. In another context, of course everything is natural.) To think rightly, and rationally, rather than to simply abdicate thinking and rationality, is the challenge for pioneering humans.

To "surrender to nature", being a conscious choice driven through the neo-cortex, is a contradiction in terms. This surrender may be possible for a few "enlightened" beings who can easily go "beyond thought", but those who cannot stop thinking, what are they to do?

Follow the enlightened blindly, perhaps?