Thursday, August 25, 2011

Diaries of a Not-So Mad Man

In my attempt to eventually finish reading all things Kafka, I read the first volume of his predictably strange but often fascinating two-volume diary collection, The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1910-1913. Never meant for publication, these diary entries are raw, unpolished, quite personal, and often deeply insightful in terms of Kafka’s literary ruminations. The diaries include rough drafts for stories, descriptions of very strange dreams, plot summaries and criticism of Yiddish plays, criticism of Yiddish actors and performers, reflections on books, details on daily life, food and dress, descriptions of acquaintances  and socialites from Prague, self-deprecating passages in which Kafka doubts what he believes is his limited talent, reflections on the importance of literature and writing in his life, morbid fantasies of suffering and dying, guilt-ridden passages describing how little Kafka has written, and reflections on young and married women with whom Kafka was clearly interested.

For anyone interested in Kafka, probably Metamorphosis, “The Doorkeeper’s Parable,” and “A Hunger Artist” are the best places to start.  I would follow those with The Castle, “The Judgment,” “In the Penal Colony,” and The Trial. But if you want to dig a little deeper into what kind of person Kafka is and how his life clearly shaped his stories, the diaries are where you’ll find the so-called inner Kafka, the man behind the stories. He had a conflicted relationship with his father and mother, a sometimes jealous and overly critical relationship with his friend Max Brod (who would become Kafka’s literary executer), a deep interest at least for part of his life in the Jewish theater, a vivid imagination, and a darkly wry sense of humor.  On the whole, I suppose reading the diaries makes him seem a bit more “normal” than one would gather simply from reading his stories. The play summaries and criticism, reflections of novels, and his interest in women are aspects that most people (or most writers) would record in their diaries. But then you get these brief descriptions of very dark and pretty disturbing passages. One motif he continually comes back to is the image of Kafka lying down with someone or something sitting or pressing down on him, making it impossible for him to get up. In one reflection, he imagines himself pulled up through the ceilings of several apartments until his skin has been shorn off of his body and his skeletal remains crash through the roof.
You can read some of the diaries here. They are also published in book form.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Didn't I Like Pants?

I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 again last night, and once again I marvel at its genius. Despite the fact that it’s another Dreamworks production, the sequel employs the same Pixar-esque attention to detail as the first, along with a similar and intelligent message-driven script. Although we see the same kind of sumptuous visuals as the first film, the sequel includes two additional and highly unique visual styles: the title sequence employs paper cutouts to tell the backstory and throughout the film several 2D animated scenes serve as Po’s haunted memories. Nothing against the brilliant Ian McShane in the first one, but I found Gary Oldman’s Peacock villain more interesting, more diabolical, more insane, and more funny. While not as gag-filled as the first one, the slightly more serious sequel still has moments of Po’s buffoonery and idiocy, but I felt it packs more of an emotional impact as it deals with a child coming to terms with his lost parents and his parents’ (both biological and adoptive) love—and it packs this punch in a fairly natural way and without sentimentality.
Kung Fu Panda 2 Quotes
I could see some people finding the self-discovery theme of the film heavy handed, and with lines like the following, it’s hard to miss the message:

Soothsayer: Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn't make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you choose to be.
[Po remembers all the things that have happened to him in his life so far]
Soothsayer: So who are you, panda?
[Po stands up slowly]
Po: I am Po. And I'm gonna need a hat.

But I’m drawn to books and films that don’t shy away from big ideas—even when the ideas themselves are fairly played out or even a bit obvious. For instance, I’ve always liked Siddhartha and Beowulf and even Invisible Man even though the authors basically spell out what they want the reader to understand about the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, or the power of white hegemony. We also have to keep in mind that it’s a children’s film, after all, and what children’s book or film doesn’t spell out the message for its audience? I doubt most kids give much thought to thinking about who they really are, but I think it’s great that the film not-so-subtly encourages kids to think about character, not letting their past form their identity, and making right choices.  Thinking about the kind of person Po wants to become and the kinds of choices he needs to make to form that person is something Po comes to terms with. And it’s something we all face.
Kung Fu Panda 2 Quotes

The other main theme deals with the conflict between the past and progress. It’s true that this isn’t the most original idea either, and I could name a hundred books, films, songs, or poems on a related issue (Julius Caesar, Inherit the Wind, Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers,” “London,” Pleasantville, The Great Gatsby, Gattaca, and many, many others). The film frames this conflict in relation to the possibility that kung fu (the past) may be overrun by Lord Shen’s new weaponry (progress). Of course, the film takes on a fairly romantic idealization of the past and, no surprise, kung fu (the past) wins out in the end. Sorry if that’s a spoiler.

Here’s my favorite line with some set up: Po’s dad describes how he found Po.

Mr. Ping: I brought you inside. Fed you. Gave you a bath. And fed you again. And again. And tried to put some pants on you. And then I made the decision that would change my life forever. To make my soup without radishes. And to raise you as my own son.
[flash back vision shows of Mr. Ping feeding baby Po his soup]
Mr. Ping: And from that moment on, both my soup and my life, have been that much sweeter. And little Po, that's the end of the story.
Mr. Ping: Oh, Po! Your story may not have such a happy beginning. But look how it turned out? You got me. You got Kung Fu. And you got noodles!
Po: I know. I just have so many questions. Like how did I ever fit in this tiny basket? Why didn't I like pants? And who am I?

Why didn’t I like pants? Love that.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Destination: 19th-Century Feudal Japan

Director of over 80 films and video productions, Takashi Miike is known for depicting over-the-top violence, disturbing images, and sexual perversions. Watch Audition or Ichi the Killer and you’ll see what I mean.  I’ve seen fewer than ten of his films, but it’s clear that he has developed a unique style, one that is fast-paced and in your face. Miike takes things in a very different direction with 13 Assassins, a 2010 remake of a 1963 black-and-white samurai film. 13 Assassins is austere, stately, and deliberate (at least in comparison with his other work). It’s a return to a traditional but sophisticated mode of storytelling; it feels like watching Kurosawa or Mizoguchi. I acknowledge that Miike still throws in some of his trademark violence—there’s plenty of blood and a couple of beheadings—and there’s a pretty disturbing image of woman whose tongue and limbs have been cut off, but these images are fairly restrained and serve to enhance the story rather than simply shock the audience.

Set in 19th century feudal Japan, 13 Assassins tells the story of a cruel, brutal (even heartless) lord named Naritsugu. Lord Naritsugu takes whatever woman pleases him, kills whoever annoys him, and finds pleasure in war and violence. (Naritsugu was the one who cut off the tongue and limbs of the woman). He is on the rise politically and must be stopped. And a samurai master is recruited to assassinate him. The epic film quickly builds, with echoes of Seven Samurai, to an amazing 50-minute battle scene with the 13 assassins taking on Naritsugu’s men.
The acting and swordsmanship are excellent. The cinematography is beautiful. But, more importantly, it’s a great story where we care about these characters, men who are fighting to make the world a better place.
This will easily be one of the best movies of the year, and it’s deserving of that oddly oxymoronic phrase instant classic. I can’t wait to see Miike’s latest, another classic remake that premiered at Cannes. It’s called Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. And this one is in 3D.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Morality and Justice

What is justice? This is a central question in Plato’s Republic, the famous philosophical dialogue where Socrates describes the cave allegory, the Theory of Forms, and his vision for utopia—in Plato’s view the only place where justice can exist. Plato’s Republic involves a class system, a grand lie to maintain the class system, philosophers as kings, equality for women, rigorous education, radical censorship (no plays, no Homer), free sexual relations, and an abolishment of the family. This was Plato’s ideal and just society. In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Michael Sandel, the popular Harvard professor whose classes can be found on DVD and Youtube, doesn’t mention Plato or Socrates but instead turns mostly to 18th, 19th and 20th century philosophers to explore justice. After laying out the ethical divide between utilitarianism, libertarianism, and egalitarianism, Sandel ultimately argues that liberals made a mistake in leaving moral questions out of the political debate and that we should return to a kind of Aristotelian notion of virtue and morality when we or our political leaders make decisions. But what’s most interesting about the book is the wealth of fascinating thought experiments and controversial current events Sandel uses to illustrate the differences between the ethical philosophies and bolster his argument.

One of the most interesting hypotheticals is one that I have heard before. You are at the controls of a train screaming down the tracks, a train with no brakes. Down the line five rail employees busily work on the track. The train will surely kill them shortly, and you have no way to warn them. You notice an alternate track to which you can divert the train, only one man works on that line. You must choose. Will you flip the switch and move to the other track? Will you spare the five and kill the one? Most people would.

Sandel also explains a variation to the train thought experiment. Now you stand on a bridge watching the train barreling toward the five men. Next to you a very fat man leans over railing of the the bridge to watch the train. You realize that you could easily push the man and kill him and his death would spare the five. Will you kill the one and spare the five? Most people wouldn’t. There is something not quite right about our act of pushing, but a justification could be made all the same.

But Sandel takes these interesting experiments beyond the hypothetical. He also explores price gouging after a hurricane in Florida, affirmative action, abortion, and two actual cases of cannibalism. He asks whether maximum collective happiness (utilitarianism), letting the market rule freely (libertarianism), or equal rights for all (egalitarianism) is best in these different situations. Sandel doesn’t ever give his opinion about specific cases (at least initially); instead, he presents the arguments from different points of view, ultimately showing the faults with the three ethical philosophies. And then he presents his solution.  

The section on Kant is the most difficult, but aside from Kant the book is quite readable and engaging. It’s a book I hope our political leaders read and one that everyone could benefit from. We all need to think rationally about justice and morality.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Austen and Tolstoy--Kindred Spirits

I finished reading Anna Karenina the other day, and I was struck by how much Tolstoy’s writing reminded me of Jane Austen’s, even though some five decades separated their novels and they literally lived worlds apart. Of course, I realize that there are stark differences between the two: Austen’s airy neoclassical style strives for syntactical perfection, balance, indirection and wit, and it swims with parallelism and antithesis, subordinate clauses and parentheticals, understatement and irony; Tolstoy’s heavier and unironic (transcendental?) realism purposely lacks perfect syntactical form and strives for clarity and directness with emphasis on independent clauses and simplicity rather than subordinates; Austen utilizes third-person limited narration with its primary focus on her main characters: Lizzy, Emma, Marianne, Anne Elliot, etc., while Anna Karenina possibly best exemplifies third-person omniscience as the narration shifts from the interior and exterior perspectives of all seven major characters (Oblonsky, Darya, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Levin, and Kitty) and occasionally some minor ones like Levin’s brother and Countess Lydia Ivanovna; Austen rarely if ever alludes to or quotes from the Bible or literature, but Tolstoy makes constant literary and Biblical allusions; and while Austen is sometimes criticized for her dearth of major political events and philosophical ideas of her day (there’s nothing in Austen about the American Revolution, Napoleon, or Romanticism—all of which occurred during her lifetime), Tolstoy’s characters discuss the socio-political and philosophical issues of his day: liberalism, agrarian reform, the role of peasants in Russian society, educational reform, and women’s rights. Austen would never describe a nursing baby latching on to his mother, a Dickensian tenement occupied by a frail and dying man suffering from bedsores, or a violent death by train with its bloody remains. Not that Tolstoy elaborates on the graphic or the sexual, and there are certainly no descriptions of the sex act in Anna Karenina, but while it’s clear in Austen that characters have extramarital relations, she writes about infidelities and other scandals with such restraint and indirectness that make it seem unfathomable that sex, poverty, or squalor exist in her world.

Even though at the syntactical level we see differences between Austen and Tolstoy, in general terms I think most people would put them both in the realist camp. Tolstoy is a more “serious” realist than Austen and in terms of content Austen is a bit of a romantic, but neither of them uses the kind of entertaining but sometimes absurd Dickensian plots or characters; in Austen and Tolstoy, there are no gothic elements, no ghosts, no monsters raised from the dead—all aspects common in the greatest 19th century literature. Austen’s style mirrored a neoclassical realism that had nothing in common with the naturalism popular in modern novels, but she was still striving to paint a realistic picture of her era—at least in terms of capturing middle- and upper-class conversations. But to say that Austen and Tolstoy are realists is perhaps a bit misleading because there is also a clear sense of morality or even spirituality in them. Transcendental realism sounds oxymoronic and I’m not sure that term quite applies to Austen, but in general terms both authors are interested in demonstrating the contentment and spirituality that comes with inner peace. While we don’t get anything quite like Levin’s moments of spirituality and peace while working the fields or observing peasants when reading Jane Austen, her characters do find in the end a happiness that might be equated to spirituality.

In reading and teaching Pride and Prejudice a number of times over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Austen subtly satirizes the Church. She clearly uses vapid characters like Collins to criticize traditional Christianity—or, more specifically, Christians by name and not by deed. Collins is the only spiritual leader in the novel, yet he is also one of the most unforgiving and judgmental—think about his letter to Mr. Bennet in which he says that the “death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison” to her running away with Wickham and then harshly advises him “to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence.” In his own life Tolstoy was a Christian anarchist, a man who criticized the state church, preached pacifism, advocated asceticism (including abstaining from sexual relations), and believed that happiness comes from modeling one’s life on the teachings of Jesus and not the ritual and liturgical practices that accompanied the state church. Being a Christian for Tolstoy meant something more than attending mass or confessing one’s sins a few times a year. To my knowledge we don’t know the details of Austen’s religious beliefs but I wouldn’t be surprised if she agreed with the Russian.

Stylistically, another key similarity between Austen and Tolstoy is that both utilize imprecise character descriptions. For example, Austen’s first description of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice occurs during the Lucas’s ball: “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien.” This kind of vague physical detail is common in Austen. Aside from a handful of references to Elizabeth’s “dark eyes,” Austen never provides a physical description of her main character Elizabeth; instead, she describes general personality traits and says that Lizzy “had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.” Even when Elizabeth’s biased mother Mrs. Bennet describes her daughter, it is in imprecise terms: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia.” And when the narrator first describes Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in perfect parallelism, again we see imprecision at work: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
It’s true that Tolstoy doesn’t go as far as Austen in this regard, but they are kindred spirits when it comes to vague descriptions. The only character details we get about Oblonsky at the beginning of Anna Karenina are that he is 34, “handsome” and “amorous.” While Tolstoy shows Levin blushing occasionally, he doesn’t tell us what Levin looks like. However, Tolstoy does often go into more detail when describing his female characters, especially in terms of hairstyle, attire, and dress. For instance, when we are first introduced to Darya, she is “wearing a dressing jacket, the skimpy braids of her once thick and beautiful hair pinned at the back of her dead, her face pinched and thin, her big, frightened eyes protruding on account of that thinness.” But even though Tolstoy will eventually describe Anna’s clothing and some of her physical traits, the first description of Anna, as Vronsky meets her on the train, is Austenesque: “Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society…[he] felt a need to glance at her once more—not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet-looking face.” (Interestingly, this particular sentence contradicts what I said earlier about Tolstoy in general; this one is syntactically Austenesque in its use of subordinate clauses and parallelism). It’s true that in the next sentence Vronksy recognizes Anna’s “shining grey eyes” and “thick lashes,” and though Austen would probably never describe a character’s eyelashes, we can see from this passage that Tolstoy, like Austen, purposely omits physical details in his main characters. Preferring the vague over the precise, both authors use words like beautiful and handsome in order to create a blank slate for the reader to fill in the gaps. Beauty is somewhat subjective and in not spelling out what it means for them, we can envision our own characters, making the reader an active participant in the construction of the novel.

Another important similarity between Austen and Tolstoy is that both tend to downplay the physical environment and focus their narration on dialogue and character’s thoughts. Austen only rarely describes the countryside. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, the only time the landscape is described (from what I recall) occurs in the few pages of description of the grounds at Pemberley, which is used by Austen not to reflect on nature or the environment but to provide a metonym for Darcy’s character. In other words, Pemberley and its grounds represent the stability, traditions, and nobility of Darcy. Tolstoy does spend more time describing the country than Austen, but like Austen he uses these descriptions primarily to comment upon Levin’s character (he is also interested in making a few salient socio-political comments about land reform and the peasantry). Perhaps the greatest affinity between these great 19th- century authors is the emphasis on dialogue and interior reflections. Authors use many different ways to communicate information about their characters. Some use physical description, some dialogue, some actions, some the landscape. Austen probably utilizes more dialogue than Tolstoy, who more heavily utilizes interior narration, and the kinds of topics that characters discuss and the manner in which they discuss these topics are somewhat different. Striving primarily for humor and wit, Austen fills her novels with both clever and stupid people to make the reader laugh; Tolstoy’s characters are much more occupied by weightier philosophical conversations—at least at times. The emphasis on dialogue and interior reflection impacts the depth and complexity of our understanding of their characters. We thoroughly understand Lizzy, Anne, Emma and other Austen characters because we have been inside their heads for the majority of several hundred pages, and the same is true for Levin, Anna and the other major Tolstoy characters. We know not only what they say but how they think and why they think in this particular way.

However, now that I think about it, another fairly significant difference is Austen’s heavy use of foils. Nearly everyone in an Austen novel contrasts with a major character in some way. In Sense and Sensibility we have Marianne and Elinor, in Emma, there is Mr. Knightly and Mr. Churchill, and in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s foils include Mr. Bennet, Lydia, Jane, and Charlotte. Austen uses these contrasts to shed light on her main characters; in other words, we learn more about Lizzy by observing Lydia and Charlotte. There are of course contrasting characters in Tolstoy: characters who have affairs (Oblonsky and Anna), characters who deal with their spouse’s infidelity in different ways (Karenin and Darya), and the radically contrasting brothers of Levin. But I wouldn’t call any of these foils—a foil is something more than a contrasting character.

On a plot level, both Austen and Anna Karenina deal with the impact, resolution, and return of a rejected suitor. In Pride and Prejudice we have Darcy, in Persuasion, Anne Elliot, in Anna, both Levin and Vronsky. Though their characters are decidedly different (Darcy is the embodiment of pride, Levin is the embodiment of reason and humility, and Vronsky is somewhere between them) and Austen’s arc is much more dramatic in terms of the changes that occur because of the rejection (at least this is true for Darcy), this basic theme does tie the woks together nicely.

I’m sure there are other differences and similarities, and I recognize the dearth of examples here. In fact, if I was grading this, I would write “more textual support needed.” Then again, this isn’t meant to be a high school term paper.