Under the Shade of Ideology

We are all fanatics—stark raving mad—after a fashion. Whether in the name of God, Humanity, Love, or any other ideal. Even those walking euphemisms for atheism, secular humanists, have faith in humanity. This faith might be thought of as a frame. Breaking through these frames that, well, frame our existence is a violent, life-shattering endeavor. But it is also an existential crisis you can be proud of. It is saying farewell to that which you once lovingly held up as Truth. Many refer to this experience as suddenly feeling “alone in the world,” to which the Spanish idiom comes to mind as a rebuttal: “Es mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.” Roughly translated: “It’s better to be alone than in bad company.” Others might argue that this solipsistic gesture is for the egoist and the self-entitled, but I believe it is a move towards freedom.

If you’ve ever seen Slavoj Žižek’s visual polemic The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, you’ll remember his appraisal of the 1988 film They Live. The protagonist, aptly surnamed “Nada,” chances upon a pair of very special sunglasses that allow him to see the ideological frames that dictate our lives. Is it telling that he discovers them in an abandoned church?

In your daily amblings, you might have noticed hordes of hipsters wearing one of the film’s emblems, “OBEY,” on everything from shirts to hats. Unfortunately, the irony might indeed be lost on them that their consumerism feeds into the film’s very critique: we are controlled by the ideological markers of our society, the most prominent of which is capitalism. This is expressly symbolized when the following words glare at you from the face of a dollar bill: “I AM YOUR GOD.”

I should take a moment here to mention the friend’s dissertation chapter that prompted these thoughts. Check him out at joaquinpedroso.com. Said scholar cites R.W.K. Paterson, who in turn cites Max Stirner in saying the following: “If the idea of ‘God’ is the idea of a unifying principle which transforms our centrifugal experiences into a coherent and significant whole, then the atheist’s denial of God is a denial of the possibility of any such ideal unity.”

The theological is such a tough frame to break through, but once you do, you’re free. What about a non-interventionist god? A movement, a force, without any direction, without any intention. How does conception of a deity frame our conception of self? Characterizing god with human qualities springs from a desire to characterize ourselves. If a vengeful god requires guilt and contrition, then does it follow that a forgiving god generates hedonism? Stirner might want us to “reject the guiding ideas that…underlie our understandings of ourselves,” (qtd. in Pedroso 11) but is this really tenable?  Even if we could, like Nada, put on the ideology-blasting shades, would that change anything? We might (in dialogue and behavior) be able to recognize and “reject” ideology, thereby annihilating all sense of self, but it’s all a ruse.  It’s like inadmissible evidence in court—once it’s presented, you can’t really ever erase it from your memory.  Memories might very well be the blessing and the bane of our lives, depending on how you choose to look at it. Indeed, even the question of choice is up for debate. How many memories would we gladly expunge, if only we could? To what extent can someone choose to remember or forget? Unless you’ve sustained brain trauma or engaged in some heavy psychotropic substances, you cannot simply choose to forget. The best you can hope for is to choose to ignore—with varying degrees of success.

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My friend continues by invoking Nietzsche—that wonderful skeptic of all that is holy. For him, Ideological Man must join Ideological God in mutual death. But then, even the idea of death is permeated with an expectation of mourning, of continued re-visiting. Admittedly, this is another social frame speaking. Must that die too? How can we condemn to death that which embalms our lives with a smidgen of hope? It takes the bravest to do so.

Nietzsche explains why we engage in functional lies thus:

We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live – by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith no one could endure living! But that does not prove them. Life is not an argument; the conditions of life might include error (qtd. in Pedroso 22).

Dualisms act as the bulwark of our collective identity. To define something in opposition to another gives us a sense of security. And yet, the current Pope’s suggestion that science and religion can exist in harmony is only radical at first glance. The truth is, Science and Metaphysics go hand in hand, since people are compelled to fill in the gaps left by science with the divine. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Why do people feel compelled to close the gaps? To go against what Keats described as “negative capability,” or being comfortably within uncertainty. What’s so great about certainty anyway? Why are questions (like these) so irritating?

As a nod to the ubiquity of Derrida in my life, we cannot escape our dichotomies because we think via language. The extra-linguistic should be our aim, but systematically tapping into it would defeat the purpose. It should be an organic encounter—unplanned and fleeting. This type of encounter sacrifices efficiency though, another divinity in itself. The balmy conviction that comes from thinking in dualisms is particularly suited to bitter maturity. Children don’t suffer from this. Only the mind of a child can contend with an infinite horizon of possibility. We may also take a page from Fitzgerald, who imbued his fictional Gatsby with a mind that could “romp like the mind of God.”

But alas! We cannot all be like Gatsby. In any case, look how he ended up. A caution against dreaming?

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Poetic Ghosts

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Being exposed to contemporary poetry is so refreshing. In truth, I’m kind of fed up with the Euro-centric ideals of 17th and 18th century British poetry (sorry Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Keats, etc.!)

Anyway, I’m going through Gravesend, a collection by Cole Swenson, and it’s very provocative. Creepy, (only because I’m a wuss) but provocative. I’m basing my seminar paper on this collection, but just now, it inspired a dialogue between two characters. (My poor story; it’s been put on the back-burner until I finish this Masters…) Here it is:

The wind pulled the sheets of water back taut, then let them loose. They thrashed against the window in cyclical waves. Briseis and Theo were still with exhaustion, but wide awake, staring at the ceiling with an almost religious observance. Theo risked a brief look sideways, and confirmed she was awake.

What are you thinking?

After a brief pause, she responded.

I try not to think of my mortality, but it makes an uninvited overture almost daily. We are ghosts.

How do you mean?

Just that. One foot in the grave. I find myself immobile because of it.

It doesn’t make sense.

Doesn’t have to. I saw my sister on the train yesterday.

And?

And she lives in Japan.

That’s not possible.

It is, entirely.

Why do you torment yourself?

Why don’t you?

I choose to be happy.

That choice is not ours to make.

Whose is it then?

The people you never meet. Things that are not really there.

How can that possibly hold sway over my life, my emotions?

How could it not? People live and die for the things that cannot be explained. It’s the material that’s insubstantial.

I’m not sure I follow. But even if I did, I don’t agree with you.

That’s one thing we have in common, then.

What?

I disagree with myself just as often. A return to the uncanny. I told you—we’re ghosts.

 

V for Vendetta Bleeds Orwellian Dystopia

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James McTeigue directs what I would suggest is a powerful re-imagining of George Orwell’s (Eric Blair’s) 1984. Many of us had the pleasure of reading the novel and all its eerie glory in high school. Portentous and incredibly disturbing, it serves as a warning for all future generations to avoid falling into the void of complacency when it comes to government. When a government fails to represent the interests of its people, its legitimacy vanishes. It seems to me a vicious cycle when a coups d’etat only leads to the establishment of a centralized government where one individual has supreme power. Won’t this inevitably lead to future uprisings? This is why V says governments should be afraid of their people, not the other way around. This all smacks of Marx, yet it was he who said, “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master…” in 1852 regarding the French peasantry living under Bonaparte’s reign. Though it is agreed that these people were marginalized and lacked the resources to make their voices heard, it seems presumptuous at the least, despotic at worst, to appoint ourselves as their “betters,” capable of ruling over them benignly and without a shred of self-interest. A recipe for continued disaster, I’d say.
The movie evokes the descent into complete helplessness that 1984 builds, though ending on a hopeful note. The setting and backstory for the movie are dead-on to the book, though the plot and characters are fundamentally different. The populace in the movie are living, breathing drones, resigned to their fate. But with his devilish charisma, V invites them to simply “look into the mirror” when looking for someone to blame. The bystanders are far more dangerous than the villains, because they can do something, but choose not to. It is far easier to sit back and accept your fate as someone else writes it, than to rise up and reclaim your life.
The performances are also spectacular, with Hugo Weaving giving the man behind the mask real substance. His voice captivates your senses. Natalie Portman (whom I love–if only because she studied Psychology at Harvard–oh and she’s an awesome actress to boot) took my body and mind into hers as she lived through the fear, the torture, and the re-birth. In the novel, Winston does not experience a rebirth after the suffering. They take his humanity from him, whereas Evey reclaims hers. It is one of the most tragic endings I’ve ever read, and it doesn’t even involve his death. Indeed, some things are far worse than death.
As with all good movies (and books), this is one where you will discover a number of hidden nuances each time you watch it.

The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann Style

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We went to see the movie when it opened, and of course, I have an opinion. Before I get into the nuts and bolts, I must applaud the marketing department because it was phenomenally promoted on all fronts.
Some detractions: I thought the movie should have included some other pivotal moments from the text, like when Nick sees the Buchanans coming back from their travels, blithe and oblivious to anyone’s woes. I think that scene is important for character development because Nick refuses to shake Tom’s hand, and makes the determination that they are careless people. Plus, the last scenes where he equates the scope of Gatsby’s hope with that of the first European settlers who beheld that “fresh green breast” as ripe for the taking, were also omitted. Granted though, the film was lengthy enough as it was. In terms of musical score, I’ll admit, (rather shamefully because I know it’s probably silliness on my part) that some scenes were a bit anti-climactic because they didn’t have the same songs as the trailer so proudly announced. (Yes, I was a Gatsby trailer junkie for the last several months). Maybe that’s a good thing? I don’t know. But really, is it so wrong I wanted to hear Filter’s “Happy Together” as Gatsby and Daisy reunited? The power of anticipation is outstanding. Anyway!
Attractions: Acting. Though admittedly, I know nothing of it, I thought Carrie Mulligan was a convincing (and dare I say it, like-able) Daisy, sans Mia Farrow’s dramatic flair but that’s not a bad thing in my book. She had a more subdued air to her, but still captured the character’s beguiling power. Tobey Maguire was great too. Leonardo DiCaprio (bells and whistles please!) was amazing (did we expect anything less?). There was a raw vulnerability beneath the layers of carefully crafted success story, and his performance made them all come apart for us. That scene at the hotel, when he unraveled, not so much at the revelation, but at Daisy’s cowering reaction, was practically charged with electricity. Awesome, awesome, awesome.
I did also enjoy Luhrmann’s creative license in basically Baker-acting Nick; that was an interesting twist, and oddly fitting with the downwards spiral the country went into when the stock market crashed in 1929; the end of an era, so to speak. The writing on the screen as he developed the ending was gorgeous (if they did it for the last installment of Twilight, then I would have killed somebody if they didn’t do it for Fitzgerald’s masterpiece!). The ending of the novel is nothing short of epic, extending Gatsby’s capacity for hope and wonder to all of humanity, saying we struggle against adversity, hoping that “one fine morning…”

God I love this book. Can you tell? 😉

If anyone has read Tender is the Night, do share your thoughts. Is it anywhere near as awesome as The Great Gatsby?

Kurt Vonnegut: Master of Pith

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I just had to share this, since Vonnegut has become a new favorite the moment I finished Cat’s Cradle. Sorry to be bossy but…Go read it. Now. 😉

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing:

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Genius. Who needs more than this?
As I said, he is the master of pith.

Some choice quotes from CC:

Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists… It is knowing what your limitations are. Page 115 (iPad)

I agree with one bokoninist idea. I agree that all religions, including bokononism, are nothing but lies. Page 127

“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.” (22)

Second one is like brain food for the agnostic. Or the nihilistic. Fitting for the rest of the narrative, actually.

Doesn’t the last one remind you of someone in your life? Co-worker, in-law, hell, even a spouse?

This guy is so kick-ass I’m going to sit down with Slaughterhouse Five. And that’s saying a lot, since war narratives make me want to puke. Spectacularly.

Thoughts on Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being starts off with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return, Kundera claiming it is ultimately a myth, since we can never repeat what has already happened. Or better yet, our lives are finite and therefore lamentable and ephemeral. Each moment lived, is lived once, in spite of the illusory notion of déjà vu. Everything that has passed is “illuminated by the aura of nostalgia,” as Kundera writes, because of this transient nature of our lives, which in turn constitutes the “lightness” of our existence, or being. Yet this lightness also refers to an insignificance, and so we desire the “heaviness” (indelible suffering?) that gives our life meaning. We desire the eternal return. We want to repeat ourselves. We don’t want to die.

Some choice quotes so far:

“Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love” page 11

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo.” Page 59

“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth” p. 63