Thursday, March 19, 2015

MIDI-CHLORIANS, UNFAIRLY MALIGNED: NOTIONS OF CO-EXISTENCE AND SYMBIOSIS IN 'THE PHANTOM MENACE'

As the rather clinical, biological explanation for the Force's mystical properties, the midi-chlorians -- widely disliked and derided by fans near and far -- actually serve as a key thematic underpinning to THE PHANTOM MENACE, in some sense serving, in micro-form, as a miniature represention of the societal machinations that are happening on higher levels of living. A close look at the dialogue and events of EPISODE ONE illustrate the manner in which the story depicts heretofore isolated races and beings strewn across the galaxy being forced to put aside their prejudices for the greater good of the whole, just as the mid-chlorians themselves work together in the body to maximize one's latent Jedi potential.

Throughout the course of the film, varying alien races cast disparaging words on 'outsiders' among them. Near the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to a form of discrimination that will endure throughout all six films of the series -- the blatant disregard for droids and their fate. Worried about the  mortal consequences of engaging in physical combat with the pair of Jedi that have landed on their vessel, the Nemoidian alines, representatives of the Trade Federation, casually remark that they can just send in a droid -- which leads to a slightly startled response from the C-3PO-like robot overhearing these wrods. Droids, being little more than mechanical slaves, are disposable in the STAR WARS universe; you may recall how in A NEW HOPE they are banned from the cantina. Even young Anakin Skywalker, who has spent much of his young life assembling what will become C-3P0, sheds little tears when it comes time to say an emotional good-bye to his project. "I'll make sure Mum doesn't sell you or anything," he says -- words that are delivered with the flippant assurance only a child can possess.

(Tellingly, in this short scene, George Lucas shoots Anakin's good-bye from the POV of C3PO himself -- one of the few times in the entire series that the audience can witness such a 'personal' vantage point. We are literally inside a robot's head at this point, and the result is an oddly humanizing effect; the viewer can feel what it must be like to see the world through these manmade eyes. In a way, being inside his mind, such a gaze gives the droid a dignity that the other characters in the story themselves would never think to extend. Intriguingly, such a POV is repeated  near the end of EPISODE III, where we are suddenly plunged into the viewpoint of Anakin himself as his Darth Vader mask slowly descends and is molded to his face. We are witnessing, through Anakin's eyes, his last moments as 'human', before he too becomes a new form of machine. These POV's are such a rare form of visual and character intrusion in ther series that their mere presence has an emotional effect; in these brief interludes, we see the whole world through the eyes of another -- again, ironically 'humanzing', through C-3PO and Anakin, what is a literal robotic existence.)

Thus, right from the beginning of the film, we are given an example of a kind of casual prejudice. This notion is soon elaborated upon as each now form of alien life is introduced, to the audience and each other.

Jar Jar Binks, a member of the Gungan race of lifeforms from the underwater territories on the planet of Naboo, is initially tolerated, but barely, by Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Even C-3PO is clearly not impressed, at one point stating about Jar-Jar: "I find that Jar Jar creature to be a little odd.") They seem somewhat condescending to his odd gait and form of speaking.

Not that the Gungans are any more hospitable; Jar Jar warns the Jedi that his race doesn't like outsiders, so don't expect a warm welcome when they meet with the chief. Indeed, said leader, Rugor Nass, is quite suspicious not only of the Jedi, but also of the land-dwellers on Naboo; in his, shall we say, distinctive dialect, he mentions how they think that they are so big, while the Gungans are so small. In essence, his pride, and the pride of his people, is hurt by the people of Naboo's obvious disregrad for their race.

Here we have the Jedis (representing a spiritual sect), the Gungans (the plainspoken 'locals', or indigenous tribe of the planet) and the elite of Naboo (representing the royal family and government) all essentially existing as isolated sects of their own, occupying independent worlds that have not had the need to merge before now.

It is Obi-Wan Kenob who senses the need for a kind of communion.He highlights to Rugor Nass a vital theme of the film -- that 'you and Naboo form a symbiont circle'. In essence, in the midst of this trade war, each needs the other to survive, then prosper, and endure.

The word 'symbiont' is repeated when Qui Gon Jinn explains the concept of midi-chlorians to Anakin, who he strongly suspects has powers far beyond his young years. Isolated from the Federation on Tattooine, a desert planet in the Outer Rim of the galaxy, a slave boy, Anakin is the least likely person imaginable to a be a future Jedi master. And not just any Jedi, but the one who might even fulfill the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force. Yet it is within his blood that his destiny is foretold.

(Not that Anakin, either, is free from the distdain of those who care little about other forms of life. Learning of his existence, Obi-Wan quips: "Why do I sense we've picked up another pahetic life-form?" Alluding to the seeming uselessness of Jar Jar Binks, Obi-Wan is not exempt from his own facile prejudice. Ironically, Anakin himself harbors only positive thoughts, proclaiming at one point: "Nobody can kill a Jedi!" Every one has assumptions about the 'outsiders' among them.)

Qui-Gon recognizes the unlikeliness of a boy such as this one being worth much at all. He even remarks that had Anakin been born in the Republic, his talent would have been spotted much earlier. The implication is that Tattooine is a backwater, and that lifeforms on worlds such as this one, on the outer ridges of the universe have little contact with the more 'developed' worlds of the Republic. (This could possibly explain why Han Solo in EPISODE IV believes Jedi to be purely fictional beings; by that point in time, and at that point in space, the Jedi would have no historical relevance to creatures like himself from far-out points in the galaxy.)

Discovered 'by accident' (though Qui-Gon eventually believes he was fated to be found, and his mother admits that he was a 'virgin birth'), Anakin possesses an extraordinarily high midi-chlorian count. When asked what midi-chlorians actually are, Qui Gon explains that they are "symbiont life-forms living together for mutual advantage." This line serves as the key from which we can understand the frame of the film as a whole.

The Force, as explained by Qui-Gon, is thus composed of actively alive organisms within the body that must co-exist together in order to advance.  The higher the midi-chlorian count, the more cells that are engaged in a higher form of co-operation. Given that midi-chlorians help to predict one's potential as a Jedi, you could then argue that one's progression as a Jedi can be read as being able to meld with the 'other' -- essentially 'all living things' --  at a rate that others can't easily replicate.

Earlier in the film, Anakin's mother remarks upon how caring her son is -- that he thinks only of others, never himself. As a person, in society, he is thus embodying  the kind of communal reciprocity that the midi-chlorians in his body are also enacting on a microscopic level of existence.

The midi-chlorians, as a concept, are mentioned only briefly in the film, and, to many, their very presence robs the Force of its spiritual grandeur. Such a criticism is missing an essential point -- that these midi-chlorians (obviously named, I would think, to resemble human 'mitochondria') are actually the cellular emobodiment of the ultimate aim of the Force -- a oneness with everything, each entity benefiting from the other, thereby adding to the progress of everything around us. All creatures possess this capacity, on a biological level; elevating it to the powerful level which a Jedi must reach simply extends this notion into higher notions of physical and spiritual capacity.

Anakin, the boy who thought only of others, had a higher midi-chlorian rate than anyone had ever seen, which merely meant that his potential for mutual cooperation and assistance was hard-wired from the start. Yet it still had to be honed, controlled, nurtured. That is what this first trilogy is about -- Anakin's ultimately unsuccessful journey to actualize, in life, what the midi-chlorians are already enacting in his physical body.

 Lucas uses the midi-chlorians, as a biological reality, to also metaphorically examine how the very nature of societal existence depends on one's ability to co-exist with others for mutual satisfaction. The tragedy of the prequels is that Anakin cannot maintain the potential he exhibited so clearly as a child, that he wielded so effortlessly, that was in-built from the start. The struggle for this mutual co-existence is what will lend Anakin down a path on which his enormous potential and good intentiosn are manipulated and distorted by those who seek selfish control and the domination of others. The prequels' entire saga is thus nothing more than the tale of the disintegration of the very underpinning of the Force, the mid-chlorians writ large, gradually separated and scattered.

Yet, in THE PHANTOM MENACE, all is not yet lost, and it's this 'symbionic' notion of co-operation that threads the whole film together. The Jedis must learn to trust the Gungans; the higher-echelons soldiers and royalty of Naboo (in the form of Queen Amidala) must literally bow down before the Gungan leader and beg for his help; the Gungans must put aside their distrust of the people out-of-water and assert their own bravado.

STAR WARS: EPISODE ONE -- THE PHANTOM MENACE introduces various lifeforms that initially do not get along. The political and legalistic aspects of the story, so often dismissed as boring and superfluous, actually serve to anchor the spiritual journey each set of aliens undertake. The nominal story hinges on disputes over taxation and trade -- which may seem like a rather dry hat on which to hang the start of an epic space-saga, but in these prosaic matters of routine politics and enforcementt we are also examining the fundamental roots of pure greed and selfishness -- spiritual matters that the rest of the films in the series will delve into in depth. Taxation on trade routes, and the inability of one group of beings to want to share their bounty with another, and the steady means by which war is enacted over selfish root causes like these -- notions that serve to underpin (and undermine) the alien co-operation that triumphs in spite of these tangled desires of plain greed.

By the end of the film, the 'symbiont' relationship between species that Obi-Wan Kenobi stressed ealrier in the film  has been achieved, if only for a moment. The Gungans have gained the respect of Naboo and the Jedi on the battlefields; Anakin has overcome his slave past and become a figher-pilot hero; the Jedi Council have (albeit reluctantly) allowed a slave-boy from an Outer Rim planet to be trained as one of their own; and all now stand united on stage at the climax of their victory parade, the spiritual, and 'primitive', and political, united. The midi-chlorians -- those microscopic, biological elements existing in the physical realm --  have now had their cosmological components writ large on a societal scale -- 'symbiont life-forms living together for mutual advantage' as Qui-Gon once explained to Anakin. The basic beauty of the ending is that this notion of true togetherness has materialized and bisected itself across variously alien lines of initial distrust. The true tragedy is that the audience knows (or suspects) that such a delicate co-existence can't last all that long.




Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BIEBER'S HAIR AND THE MODERN NEED TO RESHAPE OUR LIVES VIA COOL BLINKING SCREENS

I wonder what people thought about life before images of others could be seen on a screen. Most of humanity is constantly attempting to improve, modify, shake-up their lives based on what others around them appear to be doing, thereby accentuating or alterting key aspects of their personality and appearance to ingratiate themselves into the kind of close fit they think perfect strangers might like. And this kind of re-fashioning is usually happening on an unconscious level, down deep, based, in part, on what various photographic and electronic representations of humanity seem to find necessary. It's all a bit much.

Less than two hundred years ago, before photography had been invented, one's entire passage through the years pretty much unfolded unfiltered. Meaning, you had life as it was, directly around you -- 'the six inches, in front of your face', as Al Pacino says in ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. The only people you glimpsed were real people, actual people, ones whose faces you could, if you so wished, reach out and stroke, pinch, punch. All the human emotions we daily struggle to access and comprehend had a physical corollary, in that the only 'other' out there was a tangible, breathing thing, one that would bear the brunt of our good cheer or grumpy not-now-please. People only knew what presidents, kings and queens looked like through drawings, approximations. If you wanted to gaze upon the latest fashion, or hairstyles, or even facial grooming habits, you had to get out and see how those around you in your town were styling themselves. Perhaps the greatest surprise that many explorers through the ages encountered while traveling in distant lands was seeing, for the first time in their lives, the various facial conttortions of various races. It must have been revelatory, if not spooky -- this face-to-face interaction with foreheads and chins and gaping nostrils that until then had been not only unseen, but unthought of. You were encountering a mode of human whose composition of self was truly its own presentation, period.

Now, people model themselves instinctively based on what flickers before them via two-dimensional surfaces. Justin Bieber wears a certain style of haircut as a teen, and, within months, that exact same swoosh of a part is emulated by thousands of teens across North America. Part of this popularity, in hairstyle terms, certainly must have been because one kid at school saw that the cool one in class had shifted his hair in a way that allowed him to gain a certain cache. Yet that alteration had to do with an image, projected, one of 'coolness' (or 'hotness') that conveyed a manner of superficial address that found millions of teens willing to access its intent. And this communication -- via music videos, and interviews on television talk shows, and pictures on Instagram, or Twitter profile pics -- also, oddly enough, began with a real person, posing, in front of a lens. There was a reality to that hairstyle, It had actual, feelable follicles. It grew on a skull. Yet soon it became something beyond itself, above itself, televisual, and the transmission of its image altered the self-esseteem issues of an entire continent of teens preening in front of mirrors. Reality (the hair) became an image (of hair) whose content was witnessed (by teens) who swiped that image for themselves (in front of mirrors) and managed to make it their own (via real hair). All, essentially, downloaded (literally or mentally) through screens that are not, in actuality, the 'thing' (the original hair of Bieber) itself. Reality's tactile stuff, a necessity for the camera's flash and brief flicker, soon became more image than material.

Of course this kind of aping-phenomena is obviously not limited to insecure teens and their jars of hair-gel. Part of this desire for the 'look' of someone who one has never (or will never) meet is the real-life embellishment of the instinctual need to be 'better' than one's peers, a process that continues on into adulthood, a process whose inevitablity becomes more prominent with each passing month I invite into my slow temporal plod.

(Okay, it's not exactly an 'invitation'; more an 'obligation', I suppose, but I still maintain that we do have to allow, via a kind of mental acceptance, time and its steady minions into our psyche before they're allowed to go to town on our skin.)

Competition with others, to put it simply. The teen thinks: If I have hair like Bieiber, who is cool, than I shall be cool. The adult believes: If I have a nice car and a good house, others will see me as a success.  There is an evolutionary aspect, I suppose, to this continual need to one-up (or keep up with) the 'others' around us, but so much of that drive seems to emerge from plastic sources of glitz. Screens, with images, transporting ideas into our brains that then mingle with those ancient drives that allow us to progress.

Ocassionally I'll dive into an old paperback self-help book that I keep lying around, entitled THE ULTIMATE SECRETS OF TOTAL SELF-CONFIDENCE, by Dr.Robert Anthony, one of those screeds from the Seventies that started a trend that would boom in the Eighties, and, although it's all sort of hokey trash, I find myself believing some of it, and wanting to believe most of ti, because it seems better to do so, and because often the content itself always bends towards what I hope to be truth. On page 25 of my eidtion, Athony writes:

"...All forms of competition are hostile. They may seem friendly  on the surface but the prime motivation is to be do 'better than' the next person. You were placed on this earth to 'create', not to compete, so if competition is used as your basic motivation to do anything, it will literally conspire against you and defeat you every time...Although it may appear that the world is a competitive place, it is only competitive to those who feel the need to compete. Most people will reject this idea because of their childhood training, when competition was rated right up there with apple pie and the American flag. If you ask them if they think competition is healthy, they will reply, with great enthusiasm, that it is not only healthy but necessary! They feel that it gives life meaning, purpose and direction; that a person needs a reward for doing a 'good job'. IT NEVER OCCURS TO THEM THAT THE REWARD IS IN THE DOING AND NOT IN THE END RESULT...The self-reliant individual, on the other hand, does not feel the need to compete. He does not need to look and see what others are doing or be 'better than' the next person. Recognizing his capabilities for what they are, he strives FOR EXCELLENCE IN HIS OWN LIFE. The only competition is with himself, to acheive greater  personal growth."

These are notions that I agree with, but I do wonder how one can escape the practical reality of 'competition'in a world that veritably requires us to endorse this approach to existence. Having lived in Canada, Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines, I've been fortunate enough to witness all kinds of 'competition' -- each form culturally encoded, specific to the land. Much of this 'competing' concerns itself with life-stages, for lack of a better term -- where you are at this particular point in your journey, as it pertains to marriage, houses, cars and careers. It varies for each country; in Japan, if you're not married by thirty, and you're a woman, you're 'stale bread', but in Canada noone would truly care all that much if you were single forever. (Your family might, sure, but society? Eh.) If you don't have a house by your mid-thirties, as a Canadian, you're considered kind of hard-up; in the Philippines, many peoiple are trying to leave the country altogether at that age, or are living with families, because c'mon -- who can afford a place of their own? People are keeping up with the Joneses all over, but it's a race that is orchestrated and enacted via cultural means of assent. 'This' is what you should be doing, now; 'that' is what's appropriate, later. To opt out of those pre-existing conditions, as American health-insurance companies would put it, is a source of not only quiet exclusion, but constant alienation. You are welcome in this society if you play by its rules.

And this notion of 'competition' as the means to a good life is fostered by all our little screens. The massive popularity of sports celebrates 'winners' and 'losters'; the Academy Awards implies that art is composed of those who defeat other pracitioners. Academic scholarships (clickable and readable on all university websites) reward those students who are demonstrably 'better' and 'smarter' than their peers. If you don't keep up, prove yourself, dominate others, you are inert. Modern electronic culture smoothly taps into this primitive need in ourselves to foot-stomp everyone else, psychically pile-drive them into submission, Superfly Jimmy Snuka

I suppose it was always like this, even way back when in those pre-picture days. The farmer from a few centuries ago glaces over the top of his crops to his neighbour's garden -- comparing and judging, affirming or bemoaning his own state of growth. Yet everything's intensified now, in ways epic and silly. Tweeters view for the most number of 'followers', or FACEBOOK practioners gauge the number of 'friends' or 'likes' to a post as a confidence-boost to their overall sense of themselves. How many people will share your Instagram pic? Further levels of competition through which we can raise our own egos via the diminishment of others.

While outside, even as I write these words, the blue afternoon sky is lazily shading its way into an ashy form of dusk, and roosters are squawking, and children heading home from their classes are laughing all the way, the whole natural mess a medley of colours and sounds that would fit right into the frame of a world five hundred years in the past, a state of existence that needs no other occupation.

 

Monday, March 16, 2015

JOHN GRISHAM, JUSTIFIED

I'm by no means a John Grisham completist or anything, but on the occasion of getting ready to dip into SYCAMORE ROW, the sequel to his very first novel, A TIME TO KILL, I started thinking about what he's doing as a novelist that is somewhat novel.

By no means a great literary stylist, nor a master of charactertization or mood, Grisham has nevertheless managed to keep his career chugging, probably because he wields something in his arsenal that many other writers sorely lack -- namely, a kind of real-world occupational experience that provides endless bounty for his legal-thriller plots, as well as insights into American jurisprudence that can serve to illustrate in fictional form how his country has lost its way.

He's no means the only legal-thriller author out there, and probably not the best; that title still belongs to Scott Turow, I'd reckon, although Turow has always favoured and emphasized characterization more than his legalistic brethren, squarely occupying that strange no-man's land between 'popular fiction' and 'literature'. (And, as much as I like Turow, I did feel that INNOCENT, his sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT, was pretty much a bust, if only because its premise was so unlikely and contrived, even for the legal genre: "He's on trial AGAIN for murder?!?") Turow seems to allow his themes to emerge from his characters' turmoils, whereas Grisham lets the story tug everybody along. That only works if you have a pretty good plot to hang your hat on, and Grisham usually piques our interest by the specific legal milieu he explores in each book.

 Grisham was a small-town laywer before he became a writer, and, either intentionally or inadvertently, over the past two decades he has slowly, novel by novel, crafted an extended expose on the ridiculously convoluted nature of the American legal system -- and, by extension, of America itself.

Just look at some of the titles of his books, and tell me if he is or is not, in some small way, illustrating the means by which American justice is disseminated and distorted, and also let's not forget that, collectively, the names of these books could serve as the Table of Contents for a first-year textbook in law: THE FIRM, THE CLIENT, THE CHAMBER, THE RAINMAKER, THE RUNAWAY JURY, THE PARTNER, THE STREET LAWYER, THE TESTAMENT, THE SUMMONS, THE KING OF TORTS, THE LAST JUROR, THE BROKER, THE APPEAL, THE ASSOCIATE, THE CONFESSION, THE LITIGATORS, THE RACKETEER.

What we have here are books that, as a group, seem to examine almost every conceivable aspect of the American legal experience. What's the benefit of that? I'm thinking of something that both Norman Mailer and Doris Lessing have hinted at -- namely, that the majority of fiction writers, substantial fiction writers, have very little experience of professional life. Where are the great doctors, airline pilots, stockbrokers who are also excellent novelists? There aren't any, essentially. The skills it takes to become a writer are usually honed in the time that other folks use to ascend up the ladder of their professions. As a result, we get fantastic novelists who work wonders with prose, bu they often lack something, for a lack of a better word, authentic. Not emotionally, but practically, real-world. An insight into various professions, perhaps; a knowledge of nuts-and-bolts societal constructions, maybe. There's often a textured, I've-been-there occupational reality absent, either blue-collar or upper-class, that limits not only the settings of novels, but also their content and intent.

Grisham knows the law, and that laundry-list of titles up above embodies how he's delved into almost eveyr nook and cranny of its hidden corners and constructs. Even in his melodramatically suspenseful page-turners, he's letting us in on notions of the law that would otherwise remain hidden. This doesn't make his books great literature; it can, however, make for a pretty good story, given that we're allowed access to systems of thought that non-legal minds couldn't normally pry.

(From time to time, he steps out of the legal world, writing sports novels (BLEACHERS, CALICO JOE, PLAYING FOR PIZZA), young adult novels, an involving non-fiction work, THE INNOCENT MAN, and even holiday novels; his book SKIPPING CHRISTMAS has the dubious distinction of being turned into a Tim Allen comedy. He has a book of short short stories (unread by me) called FORD COUNTRY that focuses on small-town life. And probably his best book started as a serial that he published in THE OXFORD AMERICAN, a Southern literary magazine that he purchased when it started to go under. A PAINTED HOUSE is a moving coming-of-age tale that has a little bit of a TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vibe, and I'm quite certain that it'll be the best thing that Grisham will ever write. It has heart, and charm, and feels like it's the kind of story he wrote just to prove that he could.)

The first half of his novels tend to satisfy more than the rest; often the tales kind of peter out by the end, as if he's rushing to beat a deadline that's a-coming. The characterization and plots vary, in terms of freshness and vibe. Sometimes you can feel the padding. Yet there are other times when I'll pick up one of his books almost condescendingly, telling myself that I'll only read a few pages until something better comes along, and before you know it I'm halfway through the damn thing. I realize: He's telling me about a world  that I could never enter on my own. That particular dexterity and knowledge won't necessarily elevate his tales to the highest order of art, but it definitely helps in making a story feel full.




Thursday, February 26, 2015

Altman and Plimpton (Orally Speaking...)

An oral biography, in its assembled nature, due to the unwieldy fact of its very existence, is usually  nothing more than a shaggy beast of a book. You have hundreds of people collected together in print, commenting on someone of note, usually dead, in anecdotal form. Put that way, such a process of literary investigation sounds less like a project and more like a lark. This is the benefit of the form -- this feeling that what one is reading is not some sort of monetary assignment at all, but is instead just a goof. Its looseness liberates the very life under discussion.

ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY by Mitchell Zuckoff and GEORGE, BEING GEORGE George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers  are both books that are both perfectly suited to the form, because the lives under discussion were in and of themselves discursive, digressive, diversionary. They meandered here and there, and eventually assembled for themselves something very much that resembled a self.

Altman, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, allowed his actors and environment to help him fashion his films; Plimpton, bon vivant, lover of fireworks and parties, founded the most prestigious literary magazine in America, then somehow found time to practically invent the category of 'participatory journalsit', hurling himself into various sporting, musical and artistic adventures so that we, as readers, could imagine what amateurs like ourselves would do in the same situation. Altman was our rambling guide to the raging unconscious of American life writ large on the screen, while Plimpton served as the continuous upper-class buffoon so that we might in his antics appreciate the pros all the more. Both gentlemen were solitary adventurers of the spirit  who took everyone else along for the ride.

Which is what a good book should do, too, and which these two veritable tomes amply do -- put us square in the passenger seat, comfortable and alert, and that's quite easy to do when you're guided along on the path by a veritable plethora of  engaging voices. Both of these books let their subjects' fanily and friends, enemies and colleagues speak for themselves, via their own recollections. This makes for enormously readable stuff. You can tell yourself that nothing was 'assembled', because the years flow by and the experiences add up with input from this lover, or that chum, and we can all pretend that there's no overarching editor behind the whole experience, because that would seem rather stiff. Altman and Plimpton, roughly of the same generation, lived lives that were anything but rigid, because both were immensely freewheeling, with a keen sense of glee, and their respective books revel in that uncanny energy they brought to their crafts, their almost reckless enjoyment of what their art should exude.

Reading both books within a relatively short span of time, I came away wondering: Where are the Altmans and Plimptons of today? We need more people like this -- those who alter the energy of a room and a culture simply by entering through a door partly open. Perhaps they both evolved out of a time that appreciated such immediacy more than this screened-in generation. Both Altman and Plimpton used their environments to augment their craft, but also expand the culture's underlying sense of what public space should contain. Reading and listening to all these myriad voices in a collective chorus of awe, I found myself missing men that I'd never met, wondering if I would, or even could, ever meet someone like them in my life, or if I should take it upon myself to fashion an existence that in my own individual manner resembled what they each brought to earth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

LANGUAGE AS (A) CULTURE

Hideo Levy is an American author who writes in Japanese. Now based in Tokyo, he spent many years teaching at Princeton University, where he translated the famous, and poetic, Japanese historical chronicle 'Man'yooshu' into English. He has said more than once that 'language is a culture', words that are extraordinarily provocative in all the right ways. To immerse onself in a foreign language, irregardless of one's actual, physical locale, is to do battle with the essence of that culture itself. A language has its own rules, contexts, codes and sub-categories; it has implications, biases, nuances and prejudices. It has everything that exists in a real place with people, only the words by themselves create conditions that alter psychological states and impressions. Language by itself defines and creates the circumstances in which we reckon with its form. And through the folks that find a way to express the ephermal shape of their thoughts, we can witness both how the language shapes them, and how the people, in turn, mold the words to reflect the milieu from which they were born.

We all know this, instinctively, but we tend to forget it, cumulatively. Meaning, as time aggregates itself into the unwiedly mess of our lives, we use language reflexively, and persist in recognizing its impact in a manner that's almost offhand. Perhaps children are more attuned to the fabric of words, their placement and power, because it's all still new and unlikely, the whole combination of sounds.

On one of the house-league hockey teams that I played on as a child, we had an assistant coach who inserted into his speech an up-tilted 'okay?' after almost every sentence. This struck me, more than anything else, as amusing. Whether he was giving instructions, or telling us to keep our sticks on the ice, or informing us defencemen that we had to hover at the blue line just inside its margins to avoid a call of 'offside', a pleasant, inquistive  'okay?' was added to it all.

I didn't find it annoying, or peculiar -- just funny. I had never heard anyone do that before. Similarly, I had a good childhood friend who had a terrible stutter, and he was the first (and only) person I'd known who stumbled over his own words inside of every sentence that he tried to construct. That, too, I found 'funny' -- not 'ha ha' funny, but 'funny' as in odd, and unusal, and extremely unlikely, despite its obvious presence and nusiance to the rhythm of his life.

What I'm saying is, these kind of verbal tics were duly noted and examined, if only to myself, because kids tend to latch onto what's unusual, and they either mock it or roll it around in their skull like a mental gobstopper.

Later, after university, living in Toronto, a friend of my flatmate came to visit from Newfoundland, our easternmost province, and I was startled by the twang of his accent, its almost-Irish inflections. I had also never heard some of that slang before, nor his casual affectations. Whereas I would say 'buddy' or 'guy' at the beginning or end of a sentence when talking to somebody, he would say 'bye' -- a novelty to me, like a curious whistle.

Looking back, I can see that my childhood memories of my 'okay?'-obsessed hockey coach, and my young-adult recollections of that Newfound bloke, can both kind of be read as culture itself expressed through the awkward output of language.

By that I mean, my hockey coaches were, by and large, working-class guys, many of them more of then tha not employed by the giant GM factory in town, and their speech-rhythms and vocabulary were usually not sprinkled with excess levels of diction. They sounded like the people I grew up with, the friends of my parents, and ny own friends' parents. These coaches' southern Ontario accents and rather blunt jokes and hockey-playing tips were all of a piece, and that piece was the place that had given them a voice. Ditto with the Newfoundland dude, who stuck out in Toronto like the fisherman's lad that he was. Language and tone obviously arise from the awkwardly spun tapestry of our inital tangled roots.

Yet that's only part of language, and in some ways the most obvious part, the section that sees language as part of  'a' culture, rather than language 'as' culture. As a beast in and of itself, an idea which might be easier to assess if we can look at the complexities of its potential to enlighten and confuse in whatever written form it embodies.

If language is culture, full stop, as Hideo Levy maintains, than it's understandable that a certain misreading of that culture is inevitable at some point. A Japanese book I'm leafing through by Akio Namekata deals with the problems of English education in modern Japan, and as part of his thesis he discusses the complexities of the Japanese language, its nuances and implications that foreigners can never quite grasp. (This is a traditonal, even cliche argument in some quarters of Japanese thought -- that the Japanese language, and Japanese culture itself, is far too difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. Namekata was born in 1931, so it's perhaps understandable that he clings to this view.)

In Namekata's book, two of the most famous post-World War II translators of Japanese literature into English -- Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, both American -- are brought up for debate, and, to some extent, ridicule. Namekata quotes a few passages from Japanese literature that Keene has translated, pointing out that the American has misunderstood exactly who's referring to what, thus resulting in an English version of the text that is acutely misleading.

In a sense, such an error is not altogether surprising; the Japanese language is notorious for not needing a subject (i.e. 'I', 'he', 'she'', 'they', 'it', etc.) at the beginning of many sentences, so that determing exactly the gist of a topic can be an adventure indeed, even for an old Japan-hand. Namekata's point is that here we have the most revered translator of Japanese into English that has ever lived -- and even he is fucking up some pretty basic shit. Keene is not 'reading' it right, in the sense that he's not grasping the mood and atmosphere behind the words that would make the true meaning clear.

Similarly, Namekata cites a famous example from Edward Seidensticker's English translation of Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's SNOW COUNTRY -- the opening line of the novel, in fact, which I often use myself with my students to point out the different ways that English and Japanese deal with the problem of 'subject'. For Namekata, however, it's not the 'subject' that's the problem, but what's left implied and unsaid which leads to some confusion-in-translation.

Here's Seidensticker's version, in English, of the opening paragraph of the novel: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.'

Pretty straightforward, right? The thing is, in Japanese, there's no mention of a train in the first sentence. It's just assumed that it would be a train that comes out of the tunnel, because, you know, what else would it be, right? You don't need to specify the damn thing. It's possible to write that first sentence in English without mentioning a train, instead merely indicating that a border had been crossed, an exit exited, a new region entered, whatever, but it would give the whole idea a kind of circumspection that doesn't exist in the original Japanese, an avoidance, maybe. Best just to call it a train and be done with it. I always found that idea intriguing -- that even the first sentence of a novel had to be recalibrated when rendered in a completely different tongue.

However, Namekata faults Seidensticker's translation, for reasons that I'd never thought about, and still don't entirely understand. He essentially says that, for a Japanese reader, it's clear that these observations -- the the train leaving the tunnel, and the earth under the night sky, and the train pulling up to a signal stop -- reflect the spirit and heart and interior life of the main character, nuances that are not captured in the English translation.

I'm puzzled by the idea that these rather functional observations in that first paragraph are peculiar to the main character, because they seem to be basic, even clinical renditions of physical actions. How could one emphasize that they are the specific observations of one particular person? And why is it necessary, since even in Japanese the subject (the main character) is not mentioned at all? According to Namekata, Japanese readers will somehow understand that these observations do, in fact, reflect the protagonist's character, his internal essence, whereas the Western translator neglected to pick up on this tone. He couldn't read the culture inherent in the text, in other words.

I don't truly understand what Namekata is getting at, but I don't disbelieve him, either -- if he's saying the Japanese are picking up on something in the text that Seidensticker, as an American, cannot even perceive, he may be right. This is just another example of how words, by themselves, can seem to enfold and display an entire culture's intent, hiding right there in plain sight.

Another puzzling example of the inherently cultural nature of language comes from another book I'm making way through by a Japanese writer named Sukehiro Hirakawa, who's examing Japan after World War II in terms of where the Japanese language has been, and where he thinks it should go. (This is what I'm sort of/kind of/a little bit understanding, anyway; Japanese is an extremely round-about language, and just when I think the topic is 'this', the text somersaults itself into a variant version of 'that'.)

At any rate, Hirakawa, as with Namekata, was also born in 1931, so he has a view of language, and Japan, that is in accordance with someone who hails from that era. The Japanese have a very different version of World War II history than the West commonly depicts; I won't get into whether it's 'right' or 'wrong', but the Japanese don't often see themselves as being entirely to blame when it comes to that conflict. Hirakawa takes issue with the very title of a relatively recent book of Japanese history written by an American, John Dower, named EMBRACING DEFEAT, which deals with how quickly Japan rebuilt itself after the end of the war.

According to Hirakawa, the English words 'Embracing Defeat' are extremely misleading, in that there was no widespread acceptance of loss, as such, and that those very words most likely come from those Japanese prostitutes who serviced American soldiers during the years of military occupation. I read that particular idea and went; "What the fuck?" Had to read the sentence two or three times to wrap my head around its contents, and I still don't think I'm getting it all, but Hirakawa seems to be implying that the very title of the book is setting up a sociological reading of the national situation that is akin to a whore cuddling up to her potential customer. Or something like that. Translated directly to Japanese, the book's name may have a more intimate connotation that brings to mind the prostitution of the time. Or perhaps the conciliatory tone of the title does not accurately reflect the true mood of the people.

Elsewhere in the book, Namekata also takes issue with THE RAPE OF NANJING (the translated title of which would sound just as blunt in Japanese as it does in English) by the late Iris Chang, which deals with the Japanesde military's rampage of that Chinese city during World War II. In the West, this event is pretty much recognized as being historical fact, a slaughter of innocents of almost epic proportion, in Japan, amongst many scholars, there's still the belief that much of the tragedy is exaggerated, if not invented ,and Namekata seems to fall in line with that view. If I'm reading correctly, he sees THE RAPE OF NANJING as being another case of Western historians dabbling in Eastern affairs without having the proper linguistic or cultural understanding to make their case clear.

The question of historical accuracy aside in that particular case, Namekata may have a small point, in terms of linguistic and cultural interpretation. When scholars write, in English, of events that happened in a foreign, predominantly non-English speaking country, it certainly helps if they speak, read and write the language well enough to assess just what the hell did go on. There are countless books about Asian history that I've skimmed through and wondered: "Does 'this' author speak 'that' language -- and, if not, can I trust what he says?"

Through the language, one learns the culture, and if you're delving into socio-political aspects of war and occupation, self-rule and coercion, public response and government intentions, to not be able to access and comprehend orginal sources in their native language is to not truly examine the issue at all. And, in the case of American translators Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, even if you do speak, read and write the language, there will still be accusations that the language by itself is not enough to comprehend the culture. The people themselves lie both in and outside of the words that they use.

Which brings me back to Hideo Levy's phrase -- that language, on its own, is a culture, of its own. The hockey coaches of my youth uttered words that not only reflected the environment in which they were raised, but also created a cadence of their own that created their own casual world; the Japanese books that I'm trying to understand now wonder if the Japanese language can survive as a force in a world dominated by English. The language arises from the people, initially, then shapes the people, subsequently. The words exist on their own, as almost physical things that create meaning by themselves, yet they are always balanced, if not anchored, by those who continually employ their usage, who twist it and bend it and hope that it won't break, or somehow break us in the process of simply trying to make sense of it all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Brian Moore

At various points throughout Brian Moore's 1976 novel THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, there were collections of episodes and incidents so embarassing and anxious for the characters that I started to physically cringe, the way I used to do as a kid while watching Jack Tripper get into trouble on THREE'S COMPANY. I had to turn away from the screen during those moments, and there were times, while reading this book, that I wanted slam the thing down. It's a testament not only to Moore's skill as a novelist, but also to the power that words can still have, that the concept of story itself can continue to muster, if we only allow give ourselves up to the lanuage of imaginary acts.

It's also the kind of literary novel that seems to straddle the line between popular fiction and its more snootier brethren. Brian Moore, who was born in Norther Ireland, and attained Canadian citizenship before eventually moving to Malibu, California, was considered by Graham Greene at one time to be the best novelist in the world, With this book, if you went just by the story you might be shaking your head at high praise such as that. The plot is nothing to write home about, after all: The wife of a small-town doctor in Ireland goes on a holiday in France, expecting her husband to arrive in a few days to join her, but instead she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with a young American tourist, and they begin an affair. And there you go.

Not much to it, right? Yet if we can argue (broadly) that literary fiction is more concerned with 'character' than 'narrative' (and I think we can), and that its focus tends to dwell on 'language' over 'plot' (which is the case here), then the novel is a shattering success at creating the kind of confident literature that simply does its thing.

Moore initially keeps his omniscient narrator's point of view on the wife, but gradually, over the course of the book, we shift to the perspective of her friend, her brother, her husband -- but never her lover. His motives and psychology remains as murky to us as they do to our heroine. Yet by giving all the other intimates in her orbit the virtue of open introspection, we can see how her actions, so relatively tame by modern standards, shatter notions of goodwill and expectations that lock so many peoiple in, and the wider world at bay.

The language is not overy fussy, just direct, yet there's nevertheless an abiding, understated elegance that comes when a writer knows just when to relent. Nothing is forced, and we quitely, relentlessly observe all the wrenching heartache of a woman who allows herself to relinquish an old life in favour of something more. This is the plot of a thousand and one Harlequins, true, but it's also the stuff of real life, and Moore's care for his characters allows this story to take on the emotional texture of your neighbour's secerts.

Reading it, I became amazed anew -- at the oddness of words themselves, how they could correlate with one another to create an alternate world. Here we have a novel that was published before I had even reached the first of my birthdays, by an author long dead, in an edition.that has probably been shuffled around the bedrooms of the globe for the past thirty years, yet it felt so immediate and true, intimate and wounding. Even as I'm studying the literary style of the writer, I'm sucked right into the world that he's melding, and a spell has been cast, and I feel all the while like a kid of fourteen wandering around the stacks of the library downtown, searching.

Monday, February 16, 2015

'The War That Was Lost' or 'The War That Was Finished': How A Single Japanese Character Can Alter Education

Given their relatively rapid rise from the (literal) ashes of post-World War II, the Japanese people have always been obsessed with the end of the war, and consquently its meaning for how they should consider their lives. Sometimes it's instructive to see how a culture teaches various aspects of history to its youngest citizens, which is why I'm leafing my way through a Japanese book written by Ryuichi Narita, aimed at students age fourteen and up, whose title roughly translates as: "The Way To Think About, And Learn About, Post-World War II Japanse History". One of the most fascinating arguments is expressed in one of the first chapters, and involves a knotty linguistic problem that probaby couldn't be replicated (or en be much of an issue) in English language materials. Maybe by looking at these two seemingly plainspoken phrases we might learn something about how the Japanese try to regard themselves and their past.

Because much of Japanese vocabulary is composed of Chinese characters that have a visual meaning completely independent of any phonetic pronunciation, it's relatively easy to combine these kanji together to create a new word, one whose meaning is quite clear to process and comprehend, even if you're not exactly sure how it's supposed to be said by your lips. (This is also why both Japanese and Chinese are so useful on Twitter; concepts that would require dozens of characters to express via English can be succintly summed up in these Asian tongues without too much fuss.) An early chapter here focuses on how, exactly, to define the period of time that occurred after the conclusion of the war, during the American occupation.

The chapter's heading, translated, would read something like: "The War That Was Lost? The War That Was Finished?"

Admittedly, in English, this chapter-heading reads (and sounds) rather awkward and confusing, but in the Japanese language, the distinction between the two terms has certain implications for how one should linguistically (and thereby historically, intellectually and even emotionally) process the events that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki's final booms of intent. 

"The War That Was Lost" requires seventeen alphabetical characers in English, but in Japanese, we need only two pictographs -- one representig 'lost'. the other representing 'war'. You slot those two babies together, and you get the word 'haisen', which literally means 'lost war'. The next part of the chapter in question, namely 'The War That Was Finished', is also composed of two Chinese characters, one meaning 'end', the other signifying 'war'. Combine these pair of kanji, and we're left with 'shusen', which translates as 'finished war'. 

So the chapter poses this dilemma: Is it better to refer to this war as a 'lost war', or a 'finished war'?

In English, such a problem most likely wouldn't even come up, because there's any number of ways in wihch one can refer to events that chronologically follow the conclusion of a war, and it's not all that important to rigidly define how such a period of time should be classified and represented. For example, the United States, by pretty much unanimous agreement, lost the Vietnam War, yet when historians, journalists, novelists or laymen refer to that time, they could choose to say 'post-Vietnam', or 'after the war', or any other number of rather innocuous expressions. The Japanese, too, have a phrase for 'postwar' -- 'sengo' -- which literally means 'after the war', and it's also in common usage in the media and textbooks, but there's a larger linguistic issue at stake regarding the problem that this chapter is gingerly trying to explore.

To wit, he Japanese language seems to require a kind of solidity and squareness that English does not require. By that I mean, the very nature of kanji (those pictorial characters imported long ago from China) implies a fixedness -- these images are pictorial, and they have distinct meanings. You join one 'meaning' with another 'meaning' and a third 'meaning' is created; it's a very logical, cohesive process, resulting in a rigid definition that allows no leeway or slant. It's thus ironic that Japanese is considered (rightly so) a very vague language, but it is, paradoxically, the concrete nature of their expressions that allows such ambiguity to surface. 

When you're language is flexible and loosey-goosey and can boogie-woogie like English, you can slip and slide all over the place, and in that relaxed mode of expression, any number of interpretations of thought can be processed and discussed. In Japanese, the use of kanji, more often than not, creates a kind of codified standard that says 'this means THIS', period. By employing these terms, one thereby becomes sort of stuck. It means what it means; it is what it is. Yet it's because of this solidity that one can then allow a door of interpretation to be opened, because ten different people might hear or read this same expression, and thus come away with ten alternate beliefs in what is being said. By being so broadly direct, the listener or reader is forced to ponder what other ambiguities might exist underneath such firmness.

So, for example, if the phrase 'lost war' comes to be known as the de facto means by which the Japanese language (and people) term that time in the past, that repeated emphasis of 'lost', as part of the fabric of the word, stresses something, by its very usage -- namely, the fact that Japan did, in fact, lose the war. The 'loss' becomes all important. Every time the term is employed, it will be 'lost' that is seen as part of the word, and thus, being a language that thrives on ambiguity, the reader (or listener) will necessarily wonder in each context that it's being used if this 'lost' aspect has relevance to the larger point being made. (Of course, this may all be happening at that subconscious level where language seems to dwell inside us.)

Similarly, if the phrase 'shuesen', or 'finished war', is more often employed, then the fact that Japan 'lost' the war is no longer as relevant to the greater points that are under dicussion. The linguistic implications of that one word, 'finished war', are that Japan may not have won the war, true, but it's the 'finished' part that's important -- not the fact that it was a defeat. 

These may sound like enormously fussy arguments to be made for a concept that pretty much means the same thing -- we are, after all, simply talking about words that refer to the end of a war. Yet they could have ideological or political ramifications, depending on who's using them. For example, if a particular Prime Minister of Japan is notoriously right-wing, and he chooses to use the phrase 'shusen' when talking about post-World War II society, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he's not so sure that in fact Japan's 'loss' should be stressed? Or, conversely, if a left-wing journalist repeatedly uses the phrase 'haisen' to explore that very same period of time, we might think that he or she is indeed emphasizing the fact that Japan lost that conflict. 

Again, all of these assumptions of ours (and theirs, the users of these words) would probably be existing on some unconscious level, but that might be the point of this chapter -- that kanji is such a visually striking element of linguistics that employing the proper Chinese character must be dealt with in a considered fashion. If children are being taught about their own country, and its own past, which aspect should be stressed -- the fact that the war was 'lost', or the fact that it was 'finished'? This is semantics (quite literally so!), but it also shapes in some ways how their citizens start to think.

I don't believe that Ryuichi Narita, the author of the book, comes to a conclusion one way or the other; like many Japanese books (and the tone of this one in particular), the ideas seem to be meandering and questioning, broadly exploratory and discursive, rather than firmly instructive one way or the other. (In the same chapter, he brings up the notion of 'destruction' and 'humiliation' -- that these were vocabulary children after the war habitually came to think of when considering Japan's post-war era, and it seems like Narita is stressing repeatedly the importance of language itself in how history is projected.)

Trying to understand how one culture teaches what it does. the extent of its self-introspection and objectivity and using which particular vocabulary, is a goal that right now is, admitteldy, a little bit above my pay-grade (in Japanese-language-comprehension terms, that is). My insights here might be far off the mark. Yet I do find the broader implications of 'lost war' and 'end of war' enormously interesting, both as examples of the Japanese language's dexterity and possibilities, and also as indications of how language and its usage can almost telekinetically connect to actual human responses, as well as link to those real emotional states of consideration that affect how one chooses to look at life as it was lived.