Inherent Vice #ThomasPynchon #PaulThomasAnderson #atthemovies

Inherent ViceFor decades I have been a fan of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The first one I read was “V”, still one of my favourites, but, really, I love all of them. There is some geographical and historical magic Pynchon distils in his writing, that permeates his characters in a unique way. Maxine Tarnow, in Bleeding Edge, is the girl of the 90’s, immersed in what is already the nightmarish world of post 911.

Doc Sportello, the pot-smoking gumshoe and hero of Inherent Vice, is, in many ways, a happier character than some, in Pynchon’s world. He, and his vanishing groovy girlfriend Shasta, live in late 60s LA, in post-hippy California, already governed by Mickey-Mouse Ronald Reagan, already busy dismantling the public services and tax legislation that had made California the most prosperous state in the Union. Worst would come later. Tricky Nixon is president, not yet disappeared down the Watergate plughole. ‘Nam is about to be left to her destiny…

I love the story for its nostalgic atmosphere and evocation of a fast disappearing species: happy Americans. Thus I was a little anxious to go and see Paul Anderson‘s film, drawn from the novel. Rarely I enjoy movies taken from loved books, almost never.

This is a brilliant exception. Mr Anderson scores all rounds: a mastery direction, wonderful camera shots, and perfect actors: it’s all there, and it is Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, and Katherine Waterston his ravishing and gifted girlfriend. I was impressed by Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, the hippy-hating cop with a taste for ice-cream… Owen Wilson is a marvellous Californian double snitch, who loves his wife and family.

This is, of course, a very funny movie, in a very Pynchonesque style. We hear the surf, we look at the cars, we admire Shasta’s grooviness, we fear the sinister FBI…

I left the theater wishing we could go back in time, before Mickey-Mouse became president and ruined us all. Luckily Thomas Pynchon is still around to write novels that may inspire Paul Thomas Anderson… In fact I’d fancy Miss Waterston as Maxine.

In a deep well, reflections on reading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-up Bird ChronicleIt is a rare writer who can combine the spectra of recent history in its full horror, the dreams of love, and the mysteries of the soul. So is Monsieur Murakami.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in 1995, and once again, I regretted my inability to read the novel in the writer’s language. Yet Jay Rubin’s translation is a wonder on its own right. This was perhaps, for this reader, the most difficult Murakami’s novel so far, considerably harder reading than 1Q84 or, my all-time favourite, Kafka on the Shore. Kafka’s influence, among many others, is there, for the central character, Toru Okada, has to endure a metamorphosis of his own, once the house cat disappears, shortly followed by mysterious and fragile Kumiko, Toru’s wife.

However I won’t spoil this read for my followers, those who haven’t yet read this extraordinary work. The story is rooted in the memories of the atrocious war fought on the periphery of the Asian continent, in the country Imperial Japan named Manchukuo. There the Japanese army faced the might of the Soviet Union, from the late thirties, before the war extended to the whole of Asia and Europe.

Perhaps uniquely in its descriptions, the Wind-up Bird Chronicle is pitiless in plunging the reader in the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, and nature. Toru, surrounded by strange women who may not all be human, just about survives the metamorphosis imposed on him, through the grace of friendship, and the skills of his protector, unforgettable Nutmeg. The truth, factual or not, is to be found at the bottom of the well.

In the strange loops that link the characters, across time and spaces, humble objects such a red vinyl hat, or a baseball hat, there resides the mystery of the human soul. And a small cat’s tail…

 

#FiveSentenceFiction: Waiting

In memory of Arthur C. Clarke (The Sentinel)

SentinelWhen they saw you, they knew, as if eons of time had collapsed into this instant: the smooth surface, the faint light absorbed, the silence.

Space was unforgiving, and you had waited such a long time, in the absolute solitude of the desolated moon.

But now you are awaking, at your feet the small ants look up at you in awe, at the unstoppable thrust, at the slowly revealed mystery.

Rocks fall around you, and you are still, just the apex of this marvel:

A billion year-old artificial satellite.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Pages

In memoriam: Pauline Réage

Histoire d'OI read the words, the sentences, slowly turn the pages: your novel.

Looking back, through the mist of time, I imagine you, at night, under the feeble light of post-war Europe, patiently moving your pen along the lines, writing for him, just for him.

The woman you invented, was she you, was she your sister, your doppelgänger?

He wanted to publish, you were not so sure, after all, you would be the object of scandal, but his will was stronger: how could you resist him?

The story has survived the winds of fashion, and she, your heroine, is still in our hearts.

 

#SundayMusing: Susan holds the pen

Continuing the never-ending dialogue with those elusive characters, it is my pleasure to hand over the pen to Susan, perhaps the most sinful creation of this writer’s delirious imagination.

Leonard Cohen's quoteI dislike your introduction: yes, I recognise that you have placed me in situations that many readers may find distasteful. But, pray, remember that yesterday’s taboos are today’s fads, and, perhaps even, tomorrow’s traditions. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, had habits in cooking, dressing, and, yes, loving, that were anathemas to the Victorians. Und so weiter, and so on…

Still, I rather like what you have written of me and Paul, although, he, has another opinion of you (this will have to wait until he gets the pen!) I enjoyed the beginning of the story, and revel in the new “Retour à Roissy“, which is, really, a new beginning. I felt inspired to write this, and intend to continue the adventures of Myriam and O.  I am fascinated by O, and a little infatuated with the woman who created her. If we try and place ourselves in her time and place, the grim France of the after-War, a time of bigotry and falsehoods, that she could write a story of such audacity, was a miracle.

As for my relationship with Mistress G, I make no secret that we are very good friends – and more. She too is a source of inspiration, and I have learnt a lot from her. I do mean to ask her to train my new pet, you know, the one Paul drilled enthusiastically not so long ago. Miss G and Helen, are, in a nutshell, what I aspire to become, in the fullness of time, with pet. Yes, I hear from your corner of the room, more question marks than I will bother to answer: I do not crave your intimacy. You are the writer, not, underlined, not, my lover.

By the way, you haven’t given pet a name. Shall we call her… Justine? I know, not very original for this genre, but, Justine appeals to me, and it will suit her too. Talking about names, I have to say you confused us, Paul and me, totally, with the tale of the multiple Melissa’s. How many versions are they? Which one is “real”, which one is ghostly?

As for your style, and sense of storyline, well, to be absolutely honest, I think you are far too complicated. But then, it’s up to your readers to judge! See you around…

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Zadig

Zadig He is a fictional character, without historical substance, but his author intended him to show how little control mankind has on her destiny.

The year was 1747, and Voltaire also wanted to say something about orthodoxy, the established order and the rule of logic. The Book of Fate is a work of considerable influence on writers across the western world, from the Marquis de Sade to Thomas Henry Huxley.

“As Zadig was immensely rich, and had consequently Friends without Number; and as he was a Gentleman of a robust Constitution, and remarkably handsome; as he was endowed with a plentiful Share of ready and inoffensive Wit: And, in a Word, as his Heart was perfectly sincere and open, he imagined himself, in some Measure, qualified to be perfectly happy. For which Purpose he determined to marry a gay young Lady (one Semira by name) whose Beauty, Birth and Fortune, rendered her the most desirable Person in all Babylon. He had a sincere Affection for her, grounded on Honour, and Semira conceived as tender a Passion for him.”

Abstract from Zadig, or The Book of Fate, at the Project Gutenberg

#AtoZAprilChallenge: (On) War

Vom KriegeHe wrote from a position of knowledge: that of people who have been there, who stared defeat in the face, felt the icy lips of Death, and, later, much later, realised the sweetness of victory. He’s an officer’s officer, the strategist of the European legend.

When Carl von Clausewitz started writing his book, “On War”, shortly after 1806, the proud Kingdom of Prussia, the successors of the Great Frederic, had seen the most humiliating defeat of her history, at the hands of Napoleon, the French Emperor, then at the apogee of his power.

When the book was published, in 1832, Prussia, and her ally Russia, had defeated Napoleon, and was on her way to play the leading role in the German unification, thirty years later. The monument to the extraordinary battles of the “War of Liberation” are still to be seen today all over Brandenburg and Saxony, and in the German capital, Berlin.

On War is the bible of all officers schools worldwide, and despite having been written in the age of cavalry charges and bayonets, is still a key reference of modern warfare, consulted by the great warriors of our times, from the German and Russian generals of WorldWar II, to general Vo Nguyen Giap – he of Dien-Bien-Phu‘s fame – to US General Petraeus, author of the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” of the US Army and Marine Corps.

Read also:

The Art of War, Sun Tzu

The US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, General David H. Petraeus & al.

War of the Flea, Robert Taber

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Utilitarian

John Stuart Mill “Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. Classic utilitarianism’s two most influential contributors are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.” (English Wikipedia)

From Williams’ Keywords: “Utilitarian has one complication: that it is a description of a particular philosophical system, which in practice has been widely adopted, though usually without reference to the formal name. It is also a description of a limited class of qualities or interests, practical or material. Many would say that this double sense has a single root; that it is the inevitable consequence of a particular kind of materialist philosophy. But utilitarian is very much like materialist in that it has been loaded with the aspersions of its enemies just as much as with the consequences of its own assumptions… Utilitarian, as a conscious description, was first used in English by Jeremy Bentham: to express an emphasis, in 1781, and to name, with a capital letter, the ‘professors of a new religion’ (1802). An action was ‘conformable to the principle of utility… when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it’. Happiness, in fact, was the key word of the system, as again in John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, 1861): ‘happiness… the only thing describable as an end’… Moreover, within the specific utilitarian system, characteristically limited definitions of usefulness – both its characteristic specialisation to the individual and the brisk but limited practicality which Mill described as adequate only for ‘regulating the merely business part of the social arrangements’ – came to predominate, and to limit the concept of both pleasure and happiness. It became, ironically, the working philosophy  of a bureaucratic and industrial capitalist society.”

See also:

Wikipedia article on Jeremy Bentham

The History of Utilitarianism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Utilitarian Philosophers

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Revolution

For this challenge I have drawn a lot from Keywords by Raymond Williams. My reasons are that his essays are wonderfully erudite, and fun to read (I hope followers of this blog will agree!) A beautiful example is his essay on Revolution. I cannot not quote this in its entirety! As a reminder, in Keywords C19 means in/from the 19th century.

Frontispiece of Leviathan, 1651 “Revolution now has a predominant and specialised political meaning, but the historical development of this meaning is significant. The word came into English from C14, from revolucion, revolutionem, derived from Latin revolvere – to revolve. In all its early uses it indicated  a revolving movement in space or time: ‘in whiche the other Planetes, as well as the Sonne, do finyshe their revolution and course according to their true time’ (1559); ‘from the day of the date hereof, to the full term and revolution of seven yeeres next ensuing’ (1589); ‘they recoil again, and return in a Vortical motion, and so continue their revolution for ever’ (1664). This primary use, of a recurrent physical movement, survives mainly in the technical sense of engines: revolutions per minute, usually shortened to revs.

The emergence of the political sense is very complicated. It is necessary to look first at what previous word served for an action against an established order. There was of course treason (with its root sense of betraying lawful authority) but the most general word was rebellion. This was common in English from C14. The sense had developed in Latin form the literal ‘renewal of war’ to the general sense of armed rising or opposition and, by extension, to open resistance to authority. Rebellion and rebel (as adjective, verb and noun) were then the central words for what we would now normally (but significantly not always) call revolution and revolutionary. There was also from C16, the significant development of revolt, from révolter, revolutare – to roll or revolve, which from the beginning, in English, was used in a political sense. The development of two words, revolt and revolution, from the sense of a circular movement to the sense of a political rising, can hardly be simple coincidence.

Revolution was probably affected, in its political development,  by the closeness of revolt, but in English its sense of circular movement lasted at least a century longer. There are probably two underlying causes for the transfer (in both revolt and revolution) from a circular movement to a rising. On the one hand there was the simple physical sense of the normal distribution of power as that of the high  over the low. From the point of view of any established authority, a revolt is an attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high. This is still evident in Hobbes, Leviathan, II, 28: ‘such as are they, that having been by their own act Subjects, deliberately revolting, deny the Sovereign Power’ (1651). On the other hand, but eventually leading to the same emphasis, there was the important image of the Wheel of Fortune, through which so many of the movements of life and especially the most public movements were interpreted. In the simplest sense, men revolved, or more strictly were revolved, on Fortune’s wheel, setting them now up, now down. In practise, in most uses, it was the downward  movement , the fall, that was stressed. But in any case it was the reversal between up and down that was the main sense of the image: not so much the steady and continuous movement of a wheel as the particular isolation of a top and bottom points which were, as a matter of course, certain to change place. The crucial change in revolution was at least partly affected by this. As early as 1400 there was the eventually characteristic:

‘It is I, that am come down

Thurgh change and revolution.’

(Romance of the Rose, 1366)

A sense of revolution as alteration or change is certainly evident from C15: ‘of Elementys the Revoluciouns, Chaung of times and Complexiouns’ (Lydgate, c.1450). The association with fortune was explicit as late as mid C17: ‘whereby one may see, how great the revolutions of time and fortune are’ (1663).

The political sense, already well established in revolt, began to come through in revolution from early C17, but there was enough overlap with older ways of seeing change to make most early examples ambiguous. Cromwell made a revolution, but when he said that ‘God’s revolutions’ were not to be attributed to mere human invention (Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Cromwell, III, 590-2) he was probably still using the word with an older sense (as in Fortune, but now Providential) of external and Determining movements. Indeed the most fascinating aspect of this complex of words, in C17, is that Cromwell’s revolution was called, by its enemies, the Great Rebellion, while the relatively minor events of 1688 were called by their supporters the Great and eventually the Glorious Revolution. It is evident from several uses that revolution was gaining a political sense  through C17, though still, as has been noted, with overlap to general mutability or to the movements  of Fortune or Providence. But it is very significant that in late C17 the lesser event attracted the description Revolution while the greater event was till Rebellion. Revolution, that is to say, was till the more generally favourable word, and from as late as 1796 we can find that distinction: ‘Rebellion is the subversion of the laws, and Revolution is that of tyrants’. (Subversion, it will be noted, depends on the same physical image, of turning over from below; and cf. Overthrow.) The main reason for the preference of revolution to rebellion was that the cyclical sense of the former implied a restoration or renovation of an earlier lawful authority, as distinct from action against authority without such justification.

From late C17 the sense of revolution in English was dominated by specific reference to the events of 1688. The ordinary reference (Steele, 1710; Burke, 1790) was to ‘the Revolution’, and revolutioner, the first noun for one engaged in or supporting revolution, was used primarily in that specific context. Yet a new general sense was slowly making its way through, and there was renewed cause for distinction between rebellion and revolution, according to the point of view, in the rising and declaration of independence of the American states. Revolution won through in that case, both locally and generally. In a new climate of political thought, in which the adequacy of a political system rather than loyalty to a particular sovereign was more and more taken as the real issue, revolution came to be preferred to rebellion, by anyone who supported independent change. There is a surviving significance in this, in our own time. Rebellion is still ordinarily used by a dominant power and its friends, until (or even after) it has to admit that what has been taking place – with its own independent cause and loyalties – is a revolution, though also with an added sense of scale: ‘Sire… it is not a revolt, it is a revolution’ (Carlyle, French Revolution, V, vii; 1837). (It is worth noting that revolt and revolting had acquired, from mid C18, an application to feeling as well as to action: a feeling of disgust, of turning away, of revulsion; this probably accentuated the distinction. It is curious that revulsion is etymologically associated with revel, which itself goes back to Latin rebellare – to rebel. Revel became specialised, through a sense of riotous mirth, to any lively festivity; rebel took its separate unfavourable course; revulsion, from physical sense of drawing away, took on from early C19 its sense of drawing away in disgust.)

It was in this state of interaction between the words that the specific effects of the French Revolution made the modern sense of revolution decisive. The older sense of a restoration of lawful authority, though used in occasional justification, was overridden by the sense of necessary innovation of a new order, supported by the increasingly positive sense of Progress. Of course the sense of achievement of the original rights of man was also relevant. This sense of making a new human order was always as important as that of overthrowing the old order. That, after all, was now the crucial  distinction from rebellion or from what was eventually distinguished as a palace revolution (changing the leaders but not the forms of society). Yet in political controversy arising from the actual history of armed risings and conflicts, revolution took on a specialised meaning of violent overthrow, and by late C19 was being contrasted with Evolution in its sense of a new social order brought about by peaceful and constitutional means. The sense of revolution as bringing about a wholly new social order was greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (Socialism as opposed to Capitalism)  and the more limited modification or Reform of an existing order (‘the pursuit of equality’ within a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘post-capitalist society’). The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also an argument about ends.

Revolution and revolutionary and revolutionize have of course also come to be used, outside political contexts, to indicate fundamental changes, or fundamentally new developments, in a very wide range of activities. It can seem curious to read of ‘a revolution in shopping habits’ or of the ‘revolution in transport’, and of course there are cases when this is simply the language of publicity, to describe some ‘dynamic’ new product. But in some ways this is at least no more strange than the association of revolution with Violence, since one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, has been simply important or fundamental change. Once the factory system and the new technology of late C18 and early C19 had been called, by analogy with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, one basis for description of new institutions and new technologies as revolutionary had been laid. Variations in interpretation of the Industrial Revolution – from a new social system to simply new inventions – had their effect on this use. The transistor revolution might seem a loose or trivial phrase to someone who has taken the full weight of the sense of social revolution, and a technological or second industrial revolution might seem merely polemical or distracting descriptions. Yet the history of the word supports each kind of use. What is more significant, in a century of major revolutions, is the evident discrimination of application and tone, so that the storm-clouds that have gathered around the political sense become fresh and invigorating winds when they blow in almost any direction.”

“France could have readily reinforced her own resources with those of the European revolution; as indeed all revolutionaries hoped she would. But the implications of such a leap into revolutionary war frightened moderate liberal French governments as much as Metternich. No French government between 1815 and 1848 would jeopardise general peace in its own state interests.”

(Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848)

List of Revolutions and Rebellions in Wikipedia

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Keywords

Raymond Williams at Saffron Walden

Original photo by GwydionM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:GwydionM)

For the purpose of this challenge: Raymond Williams’s book “Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society” (1976-1983)

Author of Culture and Society, published in 1958, Cambridge academic and member of Plaid Cymru, Williams was inspired by his country, Wales, and his love of words, their history and their meaning.  I owe to Williams to participate to this year’s A to Z since without him I may have lacked the motivation!

I invite followers of this blog to read Keywords.