Sunday, March 22, 2015

Brutaliser une femme, il n'y a pas de quoi être fier

Les belles imagesLes belles images by Simone de Beauvoir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Simone de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images is about the role of women in a modernizing French society during the 1960s. As a femme au foyer (a housewife), Laurence - the novel's narrator - supposedly enjoys "le privilège" of having "tout [sa] temps" (all her time). However, trapped in the social 'image' of what a 'proper' woman should be and suffocated by the confines of a patriarchal household, she eventually descends into anxiety and anorexia.

Although the novel is set in an era where machines are so omniprescent that "les hommes deviendront inutiles," the lack of awareness of women's rights juxtapose such progress and instead reveal the backwardness of society. Indeed, the crushing reality of a woman's dependance on her husband is highlighted throughout the novel. In the first chapter, the people around Laurence assume that she only has her job because of her husband's connections. Similarly, Dominique, although an independent woman who enjoys "le solitude," admits that "même avec un nom une femme sans homme, c'est une demi-ratée, une espèce d'épave." It is in a society where"une femme n’est rien sans homme" (a women is nothing without a man) that the novel takes root.

"Les belles images," pretty pictures, are powerful symbols of deception in the novel. They are all that we see ("on n'aperçoit que des images, proprement encadrées sur le petit écran) but lack the "weight of reality" (leur poids de réalité). For example, the fact that "les objets gardent encore l'aura qui les nimbait sur l'image en papier glacé" suggests how the 'images' inside the window seem glossy and flawless on the surface, even though Laurence recognizes that they are "inerte et froid" underneath their sheen.

The idea of a woman as a "belle image" further emphasizes the objectification of women in the novel. Dominique, for instance, is one 'belle image' but is a broken woman under her mask of independence ("sous les masques, il y a une femme de chair et de sang, avec un cœur, qui se sent vieillir et que la solitude épouvante"). The tragedy is that people "exhorteraient leurs amis à aller voir Athènes et la chaîne de mensonges se perpétuerait, les belles images demeurant intactes en dépit de toutes les désillusions" (people perpetuate the chain of lies, allowing the pretty images to remain intact despite their illusory nature).

Thus, most captivating of all is the fate of Catherine, Laurence's eldest daughter, for she is the only one in the novel to question the meaning of existence (ah, the French and existentialism) and show how the world is not a "belle image". She represents the voice of a young generation that is beginning to consider increasingly independent ideas. When she is sent to psychologist, however, Catherine seems about to suffer the same fate as her mother. Indeed, Laurence thinks of Catherine, she thinks of someone"qu'on était en train d'assassiner" (who one was about to assassinate).

Saying that she wanted to give her daughter "la sécurité, la gaieté, le plaisir d'être au monde," to "lui ouvrir les yeux tout de suite et peut-etre un rayon de lumiere filtrera," Laurence thus reveals her wish to give Catherine the rights she was denied - security, happiness and the light of life. After all, "élever un enfant, ce n’est pas en faire une belle image:" raising a child is not to delude her into believing that the world is a "pretty picture." Only through grasping the truth can Catherine - and the women of her generation - "s'en sortira ... De quoi? De cette nuit" - the darkness of oppression. 

In the novel, Laurence is a victim of her time:"Qu’a-t-on fait de moi ? Cette femme qui n’aime personne, insensible aux beautés du monde, incapable même de pleurer, cette femme que je vomis." According to Laurence's husband, Jean-Charles, the 'solution' to this malaise is "le docteur," an approach reminiscent of the remedies presented to Jane in The Yellow Wallpaper and Emma in Madame Bovary.

Laurence, however, understands what she must do to save herself. Saying that she must "se débarrasser de Lucien" (remove herself from her lover, Lucien), she echoes the importance of "le solitude" in finding independence. Stronger still, the shouting match between her and her husband at the end of the novel captures the boldness of a woman bravely fighting to help her daughter see a better future.

The novel is an engaging critique on the social stereotypes in 19th century France, as well as a cry for the liberation of women. "Quelle chance," what chance, will "les enfants," the children, have? Laurence asks herself this question at the end of the novel. "Elle ne le sait" - she did not know - yet in today's France, where local elections have introduced a voting system that ensures each ballot will have a male and female candidate, the chance is slowly, but surely, approaching.

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    Sunday, March 15, 2015

    The world is. It just is.

    The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Despite having spent the good part of the last two weeks studying the two world wars for my history mock exams, I decided to dive back into Richard Flanagan's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North the day exams ended. 

    Dorrigo Evans, who worked as a surgeon during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway between 1942 and 1943, is celebrated as a war hero during the post-war years. As a novel about the war, The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo's work as a surgeon, the experiences of the many Australians who were "the slaves of the yellow man," as well as their lives after the war. Since the novel is also a love story, however, another undercurrent runs through it: Dorry's love affair with his uncle's wife, Amy, during the war years.

    While the novel does not progress chronologically, the overtones of war are established from the beginning. We start with a moment from Dorry's childhood, when a simple wound foreshadows the blood to be shed later on, just as the brief expletive - "F*ck!" - on page 9 is a mere harbinger of the many more foul words to come as the Australians are dragged into a war that is not theirs. 

    I found the most striking element of the novel to be its depiction of war."The Line," evoking an image of ironic simplicity and brutal straightforwardness, is the Japanese railway that millions of prisoners of war were enlisted to help build. To do so,
    They went on trudging and falling, they went on stumbling and slipping and swearing as they thought of food, or as they thought of nothing, they went on crawling and shitting and hoping, on and on in a day that had not yet even begun.
    Life is reduced to a bare minimum when it becomes "only about getting the next footstep right:" an aim that is at once deceptively simple and infinitely cruel.

    The harshness of war is further emphasized through the bestial imagery in the novel. When all vestiges of civilization are stripped away, Choi Sang-min, a Korean guard, "lived like an animal." He "behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be." Saying that the war turned the prisoners into "a strange animal, a single organism," Flanagan also stresses the sense of solidarity - for survival - that comes with war. 

    Another comparison between the POWs and animals is drawn in the novel, but to more tragic effect: like the fish in Mr. Nikitaris's fish shop in Hobart, the POWs are imprisoned in the "tank of war". It is fitting, then, that they - although in a drunk frenzy - smash the shop after the war, freeing the fish into the sea.

    Through the way Flanagan has narrated the novel, we are also invited to consider the perspectives of  different characters and, henceforth, different cultures in the novel. Unlike the Australian POWs, who sing when working, the Japanese approach the project of the railway with a strong, cold sense of nationalism that excludes responsibility and emphasizes duty:
    War "is human beings . . . Railway might kill human beings, but I do not make human beings. I make railway. Progress does not demand freedom. Progress has no need of freedom. You, doctor, call it non-freedom. We call it spirit, nation, Emperor."
    In a similarly cruelly pragmatic fashion, Major Nakaruma believes in the necessity of punishment by force. He is the one who encourages the beating of Darky Gardiner, a young sergeant who eventually drowns in his own excrement.

    At one point in the novel, Evans says that he wants to curse God for "for our lives," for "not being here and for not saving the men burning on the f*cking bamboo.” In the novel, war is rightly portrayed as "a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilizations it created, greater than any god man worshipped." 

    And after the war?

    We are told that some veterans turn to drink, some become fathers who can never hit their children and others "died off quickly, strangely, in car crashes and suicides and creeping diseases." Choi San- min tries to develop his "own idea," one divorced from his nationalistic learnings, but is unable to do so. His only consolation is killing anything, a cockroach, before he himself is hanged. What has the war done to him? As for our narrator, Dorrigo's shock when his wife calls him "Alwyn," reinforces the way he - having lost his identity in the war - returns to a former life that will never be the same for him. Indeed,
    “He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving than the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten soup made out of foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country."
    So, the war clearly has a long-lasting effect on all who were embroiled in it. "The war pressed, the war deranged, the war undid, the war excused." But what do we remember of the war itself, and how? The structure of the novel is fittingly disjointed, as is memory.
    Memory’s only like justice because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.
    He would live to see people praised for things that were not worthy of praise, simply because truth was seen to be bad for their feelings.
    The aftermath of war brings the conflict between truth and memory. As Choi Sang-min reveals before his execution, some men were hanged even if they did not punish a single POW during the war.

    As we are further invited to consider,
    Nothing endures. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this?
    We are told that “the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; and it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained." Yet to replace the line is its "antithesis:" the death poem written by the Japanese poet Shisui, whose poem appears at the beginning of the novel and recurs at the end. It is "the circle," a "contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return."

    The war is over, but it returns with unrelenting savagery. It returns to haunt Dorrigo, for example, when he finds out that - in the cleverest twist in the novel - Darky Gardiner was actually his nephew.

    The importance of the circle is further reinforced by the novel's circular plot. In the first couple of pages, Dorry wonders what his aunt's real name is - in the final pages, he has his answer, "Ruth". In both the beginning and the end, he reminds us that "one man’s feeling is not always equal to all life is. Sometimes it’s not equal to anything much at all. He just stared into the flames."

    Yet the one point on the circle that Flanagan keeps drawing us back to is Amy - "Amy, amante, amour." The first sentence of  the novel informs us that there is always light "at the beginning of things." Dorrigo's first encounter with Amy, whom he notices because of the light shone on her inside a bookstore, is thus imbued with significance.

    Why involve a love story in a book about the war? I kept asking myself that question as I read on. Undoubtedly, both love and war bring out the "demon of desire" in men, although for different reasons. The separation of Amy and Dorrigo as a consequence of the war also reinforces all that the war has forced those involved in it to lose. Yet the balance between romance and death also sustains a sense of poetic beauty throughout the novel that, like the beautiful haikus scattered throughout and even recited before an execution, contrast sharply with the darkness of war and death.

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that truly made me feel something. I was so tense during the amputation of Jack Rainbow's leg because something in Flanagan's tone suggested that Rainbow was not going to make it; when was a last time a book had me biting my nails in suspense? I had to read the description of beheadings through squinted eyes. When Dorrigo drives into a fire to save his family, at which point his children see a rare moment of tenderness pass between his parents, I wanted to cry.

    "Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass." Yet The Narrow Road to the Deep Road is stunning in its attempt to tell this history poetically, faithfully and capture "the suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many." As Flanagan points out, "maybe it all exists only within these pages and the pages of a few other books." But in life, "Horror just is," the same way we are infallibly reminded that the world "just is."

    A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.

    It’s only our faith in illusion that makes life possible. It’s believing in reality that does us in every time”

    Humans are only one of many things and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.

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    Saturday, March 7, 2015

    There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'

    Whiplash is a film that seizes you from its opening notes and does not let go until the end. Like Birdman, it was nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, involves a lot of drumming and is about a journey to become great - in this case, "one of The Greats."

    A sense of growing intensity is established right at the beginning by the crescendoing sound of drums in the dark, followed by stellar dialogue between the film's two protagonists: Andrew Neiman (played by a focused, convincing Miles Teller) and Terence Fletcher (an astounding J.K. Simmons), whose enigmatic entrance from the shadows befits his near-Satanic personality. Of course, there are moments in the film when we see the tender side of him - when he high-fives a little girl and when he tears up at the thought of one of his old students. Yet as Damien Chazelle himself said to Simmons, "I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal." This is what Simmons brings to the big screen.

    Neiman is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory, where he is initially an unconfident alternate for the core drummer of a practice band. However, his dreams are big and music is everywhere. The jazz score in the opening scenes brings the promise of possibility, despite the eerie green lighting and a road sign that appears for a brief second, bearing the following warning: "watch your step on the road ahead."

    As Fletcher tells Neiman amiably before he plays for the first time, Charlie Parker only became 'Bird' because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. We are meant to bear this analogy in mind throughout the film as Fletcher hurls a chair at Neiman, screams profanity-laced insults at him and even slaps him to make a point about tempo (the famous rushing/dragging scene). Finally, traumatized and driven in a demoniac way, Neiman becomes so drawn into drumming that nothing - not even near, literal "whiplash" from a car accident - can diminish his desire to play his part and impress. Indeed, the myriad close-up shots of sweat, ears and eyes in the film only further reinforce the intense, intimate and sensual nature of drumming. It is electric and all-consuming.

    Thus, the philosophy of Whiplash is one that has, no doubt, raised eyebrows. It defines the price of success as sacrifice, maddening commitment and sweat and blood (literally) to an inhumane extent. Those who can reach that peak are immune from humiliation or discouragement. In the film, Neiman approaches such a dimension by wrapping bandaid after bandaid on his bleeding hand, drumming at breakneck speed for five hours straight to "earn" a part, and by finally going back on stage to challenge his conductor in an exhilarating finale that leaves your ears ringing. The fearful face of Neiman's father through the door crack is striking as he watches his son play - it is as if he knows his son is transcending the mortal, going beyond "what's expected" and approaching a terrifying territory of greatness that he cannot touch.

    So, watch Whiplash - be it for its message, Fletcher's astonishing insults, or ~108 minutes worth of great jazz and drumming!