Art & Culture

Brave New World – Huxley’s and Ours

After two years of living through Covid restrictions, as well as pondering through several weeks of the ongoing war in Ukraine, I concluded the time might be ripe to open Aldous Huxley’s opus Brave New World. While I am interested in the tendencies that drive European societies towards multiplying the means of technical and social control for some time, the book has been escaping me until this point. There it is – a proof that every crisis is also an opportunity, at least an intellectual one. The fact remains that Brave New World appears in our mental landscape as one of those works that are often referred to already due to bearing a catchy title, but not so much read. A mistake! With all its warning signs that it offers, writings like these are made to be pored over precisely at times like nowadays: when everything seems crystal clear, when media, experts and politicians in unison sign the tune of there being no alternative, it is the moment of greatest danger for independent thought. And therefore also for human beings who no longer deem it worthy to dust off the cover of old tomes.

In fact, Huxley is anything but outdated. It reads as if it was written by a contemporary.
There might be these minor details which betray that this relatively short novel was written back in 1932 (such as the over-emphasis of “neo-Pavlovian” conditioning of people, which would be likely replaced today by genetic engineering), but this does not throw us off the main message. The author’s utopia-dystopia is also surprisingly mild in its coercive mechanisms, at least to anybody who lived through Covid passes, QR codes and the images of quarantines coming recently from China. And not only them. In their place, Brave New World sprays its dissidents and nonconformists by soma, which is otherwise a “regular” happiness drug, which is compulsively used and expected to be used by population. In this our society is much more instructive and demonstrates that the rule of science, feely-happy consumerism, mass culture and erasure of history and literature is perfectly compatible with its enforcement by Orwellian means. Such a combination of Huxley’s soft and Orwell’s hard methods of ensuring the masses fall in line is more accurately portrayed for example in George Lucas’ film THX 1138, which, however, benefits from its release in 1971. The whip – or at least the tacit threat of its use – is for those who are not willing to swallow the sugar. They form a perfect duo.

The imperative of Brave New World denizens is to be always happy. Greeting fellow dweller with anyting but an ear-to-ear grin of an American TV show is a betrayal of community values. And being sad is an outright flaw, a condition that needs to be treated immediately by a few grammes of soma, as good citizens will remind each other of, using one of the catchy phrases taught to them during their Pavlovian childhood conditioning. Being happy-go-lucky means to consume: sex and fleeting relationships from early childhood, meaningless films, which however emulate senses in a kind of virtual reality, or enjoying effortless “sports” that offer no danger or exertion. The pitiful character of Linda, an inhabitant of Brave New World, who involuntarily ended up stuck for two decades in one of the few remaining “savage reservations”, where people outside civilisation still live in primitive conditions, demonstrates the level of addiction to these triffles and distractions. The moment of her return to society – for which she is overjoyed – she sinks into dependence on high doses of soma, to the extent of quickly destroying her health. Any effort to rouse her from this stupor, a metaphor for their human condition as a whole, ends up in bouts of anger, confusion and, ultimately, incomprehension of why anyone would like to be released from this rosy, ever-cheerful simulated reality. This golden cage just like in a Plato’s cave, makes its entrapped prisoners feel anxiety and snap at those who would make attempt at releasing them outside.

All this makes the reader aware that such a carefully engineered, artificially conflictless society, where people are not able to gain freedom from their immediate mental and bodily condition, is thoroughly dehumanising. How could it be? Is not individual happiness such a self-evident objective, that there can be nothing wrong if it turns into a society’s supreme pursuit? Huxley guides us to a possible answer via the book’s (few) rebellious characters and, in particular, thanks to Shakespeare-reading John, a son of Linda and therefore a “savage” from the reserve. Simultaneously regarded as a curiosity and looked down upon, John sees what is hidden to the others in their bamboozled sunny state. To be “merely” happy is inhuman, it is “goats and monkeys”, it is – idiotic. Stuck in this simple frame of reference, we are cutting ourselves off from what is most properly human: understanding and trying to comprehend our being – of our person, but also of the world we live in, which are inevitably intertwined. Doped into another condition by drugs, genetic engineering, social conditioning and peer pressure, we degrade to a circumstance lower than than of an animal, as we cannot even adequately feel and react as the nature of our surroundings would command.

One example in the book is more striking than the others. As Linda lays dying in a hospital, comatose and unaware even of her impending demise, is surrounded by genetically and mentally deprived “Delta” children (Brave New World, we did not mention, is a caste society), which observe her with intrusive curiosity to the rage and vexation of her son John. Just like the nurses, they simply do not care. Not because of intent or viciousness, but because they completely lack such a capacity. Since they were artificially created in a laboratory and then socially conditioned, not brought up in a family, they neither understand childhood nor motherhood. Their world does not open up for them the possibility to be even sad, or in love, as that requires living and interacting with existence, which is not the case when they are born enclosed into a self-centric technical universe. It therefore should not surprise us that they are deprived of the ultimate characteristic that makes up the human condition and permits a comprehension of what it means to be: the mystery of death. Huxley, acting via the character of John, perceives it very clearly.

Despite this firm grip of beings of the Brave New World, this carefully designed structure is a precarious construct. Citizens might be genetically engineered into different social castes and conditioned into a certain behaviour from the earliest age, but as long as the essence of “humanness” is not completely eradicated, some tend to wake up and question beyond this tight frame into which they have been put. They ask why, how, whence and whither – at that moment, they realise their human condition, they truly are. This puts the system into jeopardy, therefore the access to nature, withdrawal to solitude, long-term relationships, or families or national belonging are discouraged or simply erased from society. As Mustapha Mond, one of the ten “World Controllers” in charge of the Brave New World’s government, quips in response to John’s question: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability”. The tragedy here stands for the nature of human life, as the Greeks knew. And while we could correct Huxley a little, because our own society’s modus operandi shows that a certain kind of order is entirely compatible with keeping population perpetually on the move and deprived of stable institutions, the choices that have been made could not be more clear.

Ultimately, in Brave New World it is John the Savage who proves himself more worthy of being human than the architects and inhabitants of its civilisation. Towards the end of the novel, he adopts the only position tenable in the face of totalitarianism commanding everyone to induced happiness: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.” To this, Mustapha Mond replies with a deep sense of irony: “In fact, you’re claiming the right to be unhappy”. A long silence ensues, before John replies: “I claim them all.” Also our future condition might depend on whether we can grasp the sagacity of such simple, profound words.

Aldous Huxley (2013 [1932]). Brave New World. London: Everyman’s Library, 232 p.

Featured image: Brave New World, Copyright 2021 Stanislav Máselník – Reuse not allowed without author’s permission.

Humans as purely materialist individuals? Perhaps it’s time to (re)read Jung.

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Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung offered what he viewed as a diagnosis and therapeutic treatment plan for the modern West. Born in Switzerland in 1875, his methods are practised and taught to this day but his concepts are generally considered out-dated in regards to contemporary theory. His understanding of archetypes is often useful in the analysis of visual culture, especially film and television but his concerns for the condition of “modern man” are not so freely referenced. Jung saw the image as a way in which the human being was somehow in touch with transcendent truth, a philosophy which jars with post-modern scepticism. And yet, to delve more deeply into his system we find a sophisticated account of human development through imagery and symbolism that offers a refreshing perspective and an optimism of sorts. A forward looking approach is perhaps what our culture is in need of in troubled times, and in rereading Jung we are offered a route into fresh and hopeful dialogues, or at least an encouragement in this direction.

Jung’s ideas have never really managed to completely break through to the general public, while the ideas of his contemporary Sigmund Freud have become a part of the “Psychology 101.” This is perhaps because Freud’s work fits with the predominant materialist vision of Western science and philosophy. Freud offers a cynical account of human life. In contrast, Jung’s theories are of interest because they offer an alternative vision of the human mind. His concepts offer a vision of therapeutic progression; what follows is a consideration of Jung’s theory of the image, the active imagination, the archetypes, and individuation. These are ideas that understand the human being as capable of standing in charge of their own life, where the imagination and creative force of an individual contribute to a more complex understanding of the world, and thus present a more positive image of human potentiality.

Freud saw himself as a scientist filling the gaps in our knowledge of human behaviour; he defined sexuality (or ‘pansexualism’) to be the foundation of all human behaviour. Jung and Freud both agreed on the existence of the unconscious, but Jung broke with Freud, seeing wider implications of psychology and thus exposing the importance of the human psyché in parallel to scientific discovery. Freud’s theory, based on the principles of attraction and aversion, is a conceptually simpler way of assessing the psyché, but it does not pose the same therapeutic quality or metaphysical understanding present in Jung’s work. Freud’s theories, based upon materialism and mechanism, offer the prognosis of continual misery because he assesses the human subject to be full of irrational longings that society cannot accept, hence the subject is destined to deny aspects of their being and suffer.

Jung insists that this fatalistic summary is flawed, arguing that there is potential in human beings to become individuated. Philosophically, individuation expresses the general idea of how a thing is identified as an individual thing that “is not something else”. For Jung it is the process by which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated fluctuating being into an integrated whole. This is a form of mental maturity that not only allows for, but depends on the interplay of opposites; the conscious and the unconscious, the personal and the collective, the divine and the human, life and death, female and male. This state of equilibrium calms and fulfils the individual. Jung maintains that we are symbolic animals who are alienated from the symbolic aspect of life. The archetypes are symbols similar to Platonic ‘ideas’ or forms, which are the most true reality, existing in and also beyond physical being, so whether manifested or imagined, each image or emotion of the human world fits into an autonomous and transcendent archetypal category.

Jung defined the human being as directed by the mind, or psyché, which is made up of the conscious and the unconscious, connected by the ‘active imagination,’ which mediates between them. He described the conscious mind as in charge of our awareness at the present moment, controlling our immediate experience of the external world. The unconscious mind is instinctual and translates our experience of the world and of ourselves. For Jung the unconscious is collective and holds knowledge of universal archetypes. When the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious is made, a potential for a fullness of real selfhood becomes possible, which Jung called Individuation.

The creative aspect of the mind, what we might term imagination, is seen by Jung not as the slave of sexual instinct but as an autonomous attribute of the human being which illuminates archetypal knowledge. His work presents the imagination as a source and means of knowing the archetypes and the locus of our creative impulses and our psychological wellbeing. He sees it important that the human being should drop down into their unconsciousness via their imagination, whether by direction for example with the guidance of a therapist, in dreams or by artistic expression. The active-imagination engages with the healing power of art and dreams and is the guide to individuation.

For this process, it is necessary for the individual to understand the symbolic and archetypal, which aids the recognition and integration of the deeper and, at times, darker, unconscious aspects of the psyche, which must be reconciled. Jung believes the modern world to propagate an environment of conflict because humans have repressed their unconscious, and are unaware of what they have lost. These “lost” contents can be destructive, erupting as negative actions and emotions. He poses that the modern West puts inordinate responsibility on the conscious mind, and in the process humans become divided, their active-imagination becoming inert. This forced splitting between the unconscious and the conscious mind leads to psychological distress, or what Jung termed ‘neurosis’. For Jung it is the unconscious mind which communes with archetypal images, the images which properly connect us to ourselves and the world around us. The archetypes are shared concepts which permeate the collective unconscious and emerge as themes and characters in our dreams and surface in our culture – in myths, books, films and paintings.

 

The archetypes are not specific images in themselves but categories of imaginative experiences that inform the imagination and image making. Jung saw all imaginative images to fit within certain archetypal themes. There are many Jungian archetypes but some examples are; ‘the great mother’, ‘the child’, ‘the trickster’, ‘the flood’, ‘the locked door’, ‘the shadow’, ‘the wise old man or woman’ etc. Myths and legends are always highly symbolic and channel the archetypes into ones conscious; Jung believes this to be healthy.

Jung’s theories can be seen as reconciling the tension between subject and object, in response to the potent question in modern philosophy of how the human subject is adequate to object. Jung posits that the dichotomy between subject and object becomes blurred by the unconscious, because objects and phenomena in the world stimulate symbolic meaning which feeds the imagination, the external and internal world become intertwined and expressed on a non-physical level. The imagination offers a different way of approaching ‘knowing’, opposing the positivist scientific model of knowledge. Positivism being the philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof- the system therefore rejects metaphysics and any kind of theism. The ways of thinking that come from this are all based on materialism, which is to hold physical matter as the fundamental substance.

A comparison which contextualises what the term symbol implies is to explain how symbols are theoretically differentiated from signs. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer elucidates a philosophical understanding of a symbol in his book Truth and Method. He explains that while a sign points to something else outside itself, “a symbol manifests the presence of something that really is present… and makes something immediately present.”  Gadamer gives the example of a picture; “a picture is certainly not a sign… a picture points to what it represents only through its own content. By concentrating on it, we too come into contact with what is represented.” A sign for example, a road sign, stands to signify a curve in the road but is not also that curve in the road. The symbolic image thus opposes a Cartesian attitude that allows the world to be interpreted as dead thing; the archetypes dynamically connect an image to the world; thus a Jungian approach provides a useful alternative to the current opposing positions of deconstruction and essentialism.

The potential for individuation is represented in culture, which constantly presents archetypal offerings, e.g. the struggle between good and evil. This is an argument for why we actively need art and culture for our wellbeing. Creative work with its origin in the active-imagination becomes representational of both the conscious and unconscious. Art is often highly symbolic which stimulates the active-imagination of artist and onlooker. There is some sense of a primordial experience of wholeness that the artwork tries to capture, this resists Freud’s reduction and exemplifies the healing power of art, exposing the creative impulse as essential to our nature. The film Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders is a prime example of a Jungian narrative. Set in the divided Berlin, the film is a motif for the individuation process itself. In the film, the city is populated not only by humans but angels too and follows the romantic union of an angel and human, which is representational of the unconscious and the conscious mind synthesising.

As a mediating force between subject and object, the imagination opens up a space for creative knowing and understanding. At a time when enlightenment mentality is being continually reassessed, to reflect on Jung’s work is to gain confidence to delve into the realm of imagination and work dynamically with our subjectivity, yielding knowledge past the limits of positivism.

A Jungian perspective presents us as biocultural beings who need cultural knowledge of ourselves to develop, and to aid further acquisition of knowledge in all disciplines.

 

This article is an edited extract of a talk that was given at the Chisholme Institute in the Scottish Borders, 23rd April 2017.

 


Selected Bibliography

Dissanayake, E. 1999. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press.

Dunlap, P. T. The Unifying Function of Affect: Founding a theory of psychocultural development in the epistemology of John Dewey and Carl Jung. Educational philosophy and theory. Vol 44. Issue 1. P53-68. 01/02/2012.

Jung, C.G. 1960. Psychology and Religion. Based on the Terry lectures delivered at Yale University 1938. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jung, C.G. 1960. The Collected Works of C.G Jung, Vol. 8. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1969. Collected Works of C.G Jung. Vol. 11. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1979. Man and his Symbols. Ed. by Jung C, G, von Franz, M.-L. London: Aldus Books Ltd.

Young-Eisendrath, P & Dawson, T. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Jung. 2008. Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welland, M. Active imagination in Jung’s Answer to Job. Studies in Religion/Sceinces Religieuses. Sept 1997. Vol. 26. No.3. P297-308.

 

 

“Architects don’t just make buildings, they create social spaces too”, interview with Bianca Gioada

EurStrat: Bianca, welcome and thanks for taking part in the first of our interview series! To introduce you to our readers, you are a young architect based in Paris who took part in several intriguing architectural projects. You also have a Master’s degree from Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest and spent a year at Architecture Department of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Yours is a compelling personal story, so I wonder if you can tell us more about what motivated you to become an architect? And what first led you to Belgium and then to France?

Bianca: I always enjoyed drawing, ‘inventing’ and crafting objects when I was a child. In school I was keen on exact sciences. But my interest in literature, arts and crafting influenced me not to go for pure scientific studies. This led me to choose architecture. That was pretty much it. I did not have much knowledge about architecture before and had never met many architects. Once studying it, I found it fascinating and really enjoyed it. Architecture is a broad profession that covers a wide range of niches for every skill and every talent.

I studied for one year in Leuven, Belgium, at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Master of Human Settlements. This experience was defining for what followed next: professionally, it opened my mind to new concepts, and socially, because of the many international colleagues I encountered. The following year, I participated in the international competition ArtUrbain, organized by Séminaire Robert Auzellein Paris. Together with two colleagues, we received the first prize. Basically this led me to come to Paris, in the beginning for an internship and later on for a permanent position as an architect in an international architectural practice with the main office in Paris.

EurStrat: That’s quite some experience. Now let me ask you about your work. In your projects, you put a lot of emphasis on the use of traditional materials and, more broadly, on architecture that is in harmony with local surroundings. Is this your personal focus or is it a general trend in contemporary architecture? And would you say the role of architecture in towns and rural landscapes has developed a lot since modernism, the aesthetics of which many people found too “raw and cold”?

Bianca: Architecture is much more than form and aesthetics. Architects do construct things out of metal, concrete, wood, and glass, but what they really build is spaces, events, and places for living.

There is a tendency in 21st century architecture for iconic forms and their designers to get all the attention. Therefore, in the urge to innovate in a competitive field, architects often disregard focusing on people, spaces and buildings that are desirable to inhabit.

However, ideas and concepts about the purpose and place of architecture are changing a lot. The architect’s work cannot be reduced to the single role of designing buildings. On a broader scale architects can employ their skills in design by drawing on multiple fields of knowledge and expand beyond classical notions of creating architecture.

We notice this preoccupation in the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, titled Reporting From the Front, curated by Alejandro Aravena at La Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition links architecture to broader concerns of society such as migration, segregation, traffic, waste and pollution, inequalities, peripheries, natural disasters, housing shortage. These represent “urgent issues facing the whole of humanity”, as Alejandro Aravena puts it, “not just problems that only interest architects”, but a broader audience. The focus pivots from the architecture in society to the humanitarian role of the architect as a social figure.

I wonder what if instead of designing impressive expensive buildings, our real preoccupation would focus more on innovating living conditions. This seems to me it could be the real challenge for contemporary architecture and society.

The basis of architecture practice is not only about building with less money, low cost solutions, using common materials, but about an ethic of working and an ethic of how to understand society. This is the change in the future of architecture I believe in.

EurStrat: You imply that architecture should be about more than the architect and hers or his self-expression. In a way, you believe your profession can play a more “universal role” and is part of a society. I imagine that this isn’t a generally acknowledged position among architects and you may well be in a minority? There are arguments, for instance, that public’s sense of aesthetics should not at all guide architecture or that architects should concentrate on “building good buildings” and not meddle in ethics or politics. What would you reply to that?

Bianca: Architecture might be seen often as an autonomous discipline, but it is an arena where investment, communications, marketing and other fields come together. Moreover, built objects are only one of the various outcomes of architectural production.

We could argue to which extend architecture is political. Architecture is related to power and can serve  financial or political interests. But without financial cover, architects appear insignificant actors in this highly complex process of design of the built environment. And despite its image of avant-garde creativity, the making of architecture remains a game in which architects cultivate those with financial power in return for commissions. But the challenge for architects is to find means in which they can use their awareness not to simply produce new buildings on demand, but rather to participate to a better, in a social sense, above all, environment. An ethical architect and citizen should not lose the focus on the social responsibility beyond practice and his role as a mediator between the investors, planners, the public and users.

EurStrat: How do you contrast this present role of the architect to the one in the past? To those who aren’t experts, it may seem that “back then”, people simply used to build houses in the same manner as their neighbours. Were architects back then commissioned only by the rich or, for example, by the feudal or government authorities to undertake larger constructions?

It is true that in the past, but nowadays too, monuments and iconic, representative buildings have been created as a symbol of power. These are also the kinds of projects that attract largest budgets. But I do not believe that these are necessarily the true values of architecture, at least not in our present times where maybe 90% of the people do not even afford architects. Like I previously stated, the first role of architecture is to fulfil the needs of society by creating places to work and live. I wonder what if instead of designing impressive expensive buildings, our real preoccupation would focus more on innovating living conditions. This seems to me it could be the real challenge for contemporary architecture and society.

Cities are now run more than ever on a business approach and gentrification practices have driven cities to be successful in the global market. In Romania, for example, the restoration of the old town centres during the last years has been received very positively. But it was very soon after that urban strategies followed the model of the other European cities and their focus on capital interest in the detriment of the interests of citizens. These approaches have given way to mass consumerism, reducing the city centre to a global advertising board, turning citizens into consumers and pushing them to the periphery of the city’s civic life.

EurStrat: Our conversation also relates to the nature of contemporary European cities. Do you think that cities, towns and their centres have changed a lot in the last decades? Some people speak of their commercialisation, while others mention what at first looks aș opposite trends of pauperisation and gentrification. How can we understand this?

Bianca: Robert E. Park in his book On Social Control and Collective Behaviour asserts that man’s most successful attempt is to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.

Accordingly to Park’s statement, what if in order to interpret the changes you mention we assist to in cities, we look firstly to understand what kind of people we are, our present behaviour, needs, desires, social relations, aesthetic values or technological demands and how these elements model the city. Indeed, the incredible transformations on people’s lifestyle that the last decades have brought a major impact on the quality of urban life and therefore the city itself. Consumerism and tourism have become major aspects of the urban political economy. Along the same lines, the city centre has become a catalyst for consumption, tourism and leisure, concentrating restaurants, shops, fashion and cultural-based industries.

I feel that it is only very recent that we feel the repercussions of such behaviour. Cities are now run more than ever on a business approach and gentrification practices have driven cities to be successful in the global market. In Romania, for example, the restoration of the old town centres during the last years has been received very positively. But it was very soon after that urban strategies followed the model of the other European cities and their focus on capital interest in the detriment of the interests of citizens. These approaches have given way to mass consumerism, reducing the city centre to a global advertising board, turning citizens into consumers and pushing them to the periphery of the city’s civic life.

EurStrat: On the other hand, people in towns and citizens are becoming increasingly more active. I don’t mean only political activism, charities or voluntary work, but for instance both performing and performance art. How do you see such developments and do they add something to our urban landscapes and public space?

Bianca: In the contemporary context defined by the privatization of life we mentioned earlier, or by new forms of public spaces that are emerging, like the internet, we could question to what extent we still use public space.

I have recently frequented a series of live music concerts organized by independent musicians in Paris and I questioned exactly the same thing you bring up. People are very active and willing to express, share, participate and gather. And all this is very enriching. At the same time, there is a need for physical spaces where artists and basically all citizens can meet. Art is reclaiming public space and is reshaping cultural landscapes in cities today.

Public space today is often used for public gatherings which engage various kinds of performances and artistic expressions. And this is such a great quality that cannot be ‘designed’, but through design the use of such spaces can be encouraged.

It is not only about creative activities, but about the everyday liveliness which is absolutely essential for the social vitality of cities and societies.

Bianca Gioada (30)

- Graduated with Master's Degree in Architectural Design of Ion Mincu University, Romania, and studied Master of Human Settlement at Katolieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.
- Works as an architect in Manal Rachdi Oxo Architectes, Paris, and previously at Moussafir Architectes and Dietmar Feichtinger Architectes, France.
- In her projects, she focuses on urban regeneration and puts emphasis on creating "spaces, events, and places for living" rather than "just" buildings.

*Interview conducted by Stanislav Máselník

John Berger: Art is an adventure and a way of discovering the world

The influential art critic, artist and novelist John Berger passed away last week on January 2nd. He was one of the pioneering voices of innovative art programmes on the British TV, offering a then (and still) unique view of art as a discovery open to everyone, notwithstanding their education, age or profession. Berger believed in the power of art experience if approached with open mind and rid of the institutional ballast and elitist character. As he pronounced in one the episodes of Ways of Seeing: “A lot is possible for an art experience today but only if it is stripped of the false mystery and the false religiosity that surrounds it.”

Berger was an eye opening character for many future art enthusiasts: bringing art to the people through their TV screens and what is more, making it relatable and of importance to the viewer. Aside from many of his other successes, namely receiving the Booker Prize for his novel ‘ G.’ in 1972, he is well known for being responsible for the Ways of Seeing, a famous 4-part BBC series whose scripts were later adapted in a book of the same title. This mini-series was first aired in 1972 and has received both public and professional acclaim. Berger himself became the face of the series, whose excellent narrating performance and seductive diction tempt the viewer to explore and get immersed in the world of art and its history.

What made Berger’s Ways of Seeing so special at the time – and what still makes it special – was its occurrence at a period when no one cared for the general public’s access to the ways in which art can be seen and explained. The Ways of Seeing do not force any specific view with which art needs to be approached upon the viewer – on the other hand, Berger encourages the audience to think critically, even sceptically about what he shows and narrates.

In the four half an hour episodes, we travel through galleries, images and art concepts learning about the history of reproduction in art, the radical changes that machines – the camera objective – brought to art representation, the dynamics of the art market or the understanding of the female body in the history of art and much more. One of the ideas that make the series still relevant today is that of modern and contemporary image being a transmittable image. In other words the image having become a piece of information to be instantly shared, reproduced and indeed thus used for different means than its original purpose. In the age of media propaganda and uncritical acceptance of information, where the visual carries a powerful message as a simple, direct means of influence, we know this situation all too well.

If you have not yet read or seen the Ways of Seeing, please do so. It is one hell of a watch that will lure you into the art world so much you will desire to know more.


The very first episode of John Berger’s Way of Seeing at YouTube

The end of an empire – 1898: The Last Garrison of the Philippines

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In 1898, Spain and America entered a three-month war that ended with the Spanish Empire’s defeat and relinquishing of all of its remaining Pacific and American holdings – namely Cuba and the Philippines – after its defeat. For the Philippines, the war arguably marked the beginning of the path to becoming the nation it is now, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. For Spain, it was the end of its time as a colonial power and the start of a long and troubled entrance into the twentieth century. In all the upheaval and world-changing events, one particular incident stands out: A small Spanish garrison of fifty men in the Philippine town of Baler entrenched themselves in the local church at the start of the war. They held out against a prolonged siege, and refused to surrender even after the war had long ended and the Philippine-American war had begun – in 1899.

The film

Released in Spanish theatres in early December, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas chooses to largely avoid lecturing the audience on all the historical background knowledge of the Spanish-American War. Instead it focuses exclusively on the aforementioned event: the fifty men besieged in the Church of Baler by Filipino rebel troops and the physical and emotional exhaustion they underwent as the siege dragged on. Their commanding officers refused to surrender even as evidence that the war has long since ended continued to pile up. Why a group of men would continue to resist for so long – whether due to bravery and adherence to duty, miscommunication and distrust, or sheer bull-headed stubbornness – is a matter that director Salvador Calvio and producer Enrique Cerezo choose to look at in a fascinating and minimalist fashion.

A talented and well-chosen cast fronts the film’s story, but the heavy lifting is done by its two leads. First, Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos – a young, fresh-faced soldier recently enrolled in the army – and then Luis Tosar as Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, who leads the garrison in their resistance after the death of their captain and in his refusal to surrender becomes increasingly more determined – to an almost suicidal extent. Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde play two significant supporting roles as, respectively, the grizzled and cruel Sergeant Jimeno and the world-weary and wise missionary Fray Carmelo. All of them are fine actors, who play off each other well and whose conflicts and interactions feel convincing and believable.

A fine cast put aside, there is a lot to like, even admire, about this film. The camerawork is excellent, often perfectly reflecting the character’s emotions: The jungle surrounding the town of Baler is almost ethereally beautiful, yet also ominous and vaguely threatening. The inside of the church, at first seemingly old and worn, becomes safe and protective when the siege begins, then turns dark and claustrophobic as it drags on. Night scenes are full of deep shadows, hiding figures that flit between pools of darkness, or emerge half-visible under moonlight or the glow cast by flames. The passage of time is felt as a crushing, relentless slog: malnutrition and disease soon become as deadly an enemy as the Filipino rebels, adding an underlying layer of dread to many scenes. The pale-blue uniforms of the Spanish garrison are tattered and mud-green by the end of the film. By the time the garrison decides to surrender the audience will feel as exhausted by the war as they do.

However, while the film’s slow pace does help to convey the crushing grind of the siege, it also makes it seem longer than it actually is and makes the story drag in places, particularly in the last third. The ravages of the siege are not reflected on our actors’ faces: they do not become gaunter from the lack of food or even grow extra facial hair, undermining somewhat the aforementioned feel of the passage of time. This is especially striking in the case of one character’s opium addiction, which leaves him looking no worse for wear. The dialogue, while well-delivered, is at points repetitive and goes over previously-discussed points more often than needed.

The film also gives the impression that the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines – and even in Cuba – is a disaster of the Spanish Empire. In truth, these provinces were all that remained of an empire, which had long been reduced to a weakened, vestigial remnant of what it had been once, plagued by economic and political troubles. There are also some other claims regarding the siege of Baler that are possibly a matter for historical debate.

These, however, are nit-picks. The film is thoroughly recommendable as a historical war film. It does not take the approach of adrenaline-filled action, but rather opts for a slow-burning pace and a surprisingly complex and nuanced take on this particular chapter of Spain’s colonial past.

Dark complexities of a colonial past

A country’s colonial past is always going to be a complicated subject to discuss, particularly for a European colonial power such as Spain in today’s political climate when the rise of populist nationalism may lead to unjustified excuses of the past. It is immensely refreshing that 1898 opts to look at a chapter of colonialist history not through the wider lens of history, but through smaller and more personal viewpoints of the characters living its story. In its characters, the audience comes to see some of the best qualities of the Spanish colonialists, but also the worst.

The characters of Carlos and Fray Carmelo – the young soldier and the old missionary – are easily the most sympathetic. Carlos is kind and youthful, in danger of being broken down to a shell of his former self as his duty to his country hurts more than it rewards him. Fray Carmelo, who admits he has been away from Spain for years, is wise and world-weary, and his wry humour does not entirely conceal a melancholy that suggests he knows, and has accepted, that both his days and those of the Spanish Empire’s are numbered, and coming to their end. In contrast, Sergeant Jimeno is easily the most hateful member of the garrison: Tough, scarred and with a haunting gaze, his undeniable qualities as a soldier disappear  every time his cruelty shines through: he abuses prisoners, kills animals, intimidates his own men, and even suggests leaving a Filipino child tied up and helpless in a crocodile-filled swamp. He takes traditionally positive qualities – bravery under fire and discipline even in extreme circumstances – and twists them into a reflection of his own inner darkness.

Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher, http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/map.html
Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher, http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/map.html

Yet the most interesting and complex character is Lieutenant Cerezo, and his journey from stern yet seemingly reasonable and caring commander to a frighteningly stubborn antagonist whose monomaniacal determination to keep fighting slowly starts to resemble less an adherence to duty and more an elaborate suicide attempt. He consciously chooses to ignore the mounting evidence that the war has ended – newspapers, communications, even a visit from the Spanish high command – and instead dismisses them as all as insidious ploys by the enemy to trick the garrison into surrendering. He says that he has lost his wife and children, and has nothing waiting for him in Spain, yet in having himself nothing to lose, he seems determined to refuse to admit that his nation has long lost the war.

In Cerezo, film shows the most complex portrait of a colonialist – one could even argue that he stands as a metaphor for the Spanish occupation of the Philippines as a whole: a man whose stated adherence to his duty and service to his country ends up causing far more harm than good. Despite his redeeming qualities, the damage he has caused by the end is such that no-one can find it in themselves to forget what he has done or forgive him for it – not even himself.

The film is also utterly fearless in choosing to portray the ugliness of war, and strips the struggle of any sense of glory its portrayal might have brought. Both the Filipinos and the Spanish conduct brutal night raids in which neither side is above slaughtering unarmed and unprepared soldiers, with the Spanish even killing a few civilians fleeing in terror. The effects of malnutrition on the human body are horrific to see, and there is a palpable sense of despair and weariness at several points in the film, helped by the fact that its action scenes are very much spaced apart, with a lot of quietness between them wherein the grim atmosphere just sinks in and permeates everything.

Looking back at a legacy

In  its portrayal of the Filipino rebels, the film does something unexpected: What begins as a hostile enemy force is, by the end, shown to be a people fighting for their homeland, no less fiercely or less determined than the Spanish garrison fighting for theirs. Their commanders are often portrayed as reasonable, repeatedly offering the garrison chances to surrender and even giving them a gift of fresh fruit and food at a critical point as a gesture of goodwill. More intriguingly, they seem to be keenly aware of how Spain’s presence has shaped their burgeoning nation. At the start of the film, the Spanish soldiers are given a blunt speech by their commander: “We’ve been here for four hundred years. We’ve built their [the Filipino’s] cities, given them their religion, but they don’t give a shit about that. They want us out and they want us dead, and that’s that.” Yet, when the garrison’s surrender at the end of the film is being negotiated, the Filipino commander makes surprising terms – to not only grant the Spaniards safe passage as far as his territory allows, but also provide them with an Honour Guard as they leave. Shocked, the Spanish officer in charge of the surrender can only ask why. The answer comes after a brief pause: “It’s been four centuries.”

Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).
Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).

Just as the film did  not exempt the Spanish from indulging in the ugliness of war, it cannot be ignored that the country’s decision to sell the Philippines to the United States – including several islands that officially did not belong to Spain – contributed to many of the post-colonial problems still being felt in that country in the  present day. Yet modern, post-Francoist Spain generally regards and studies its imperial past in a surprisingly blunt way, not shying away from the atrocities and ugliness committed in the nations it had once ruled, even as it laid the building blocks for the countries they would become. There is not, overall, a great amount of sentimentalism for this colonial past, and 1898 is a reflection of that: It looks at the effects of a war, and the end of an empire, not through a grand sweeping vision but from the perspectives and the emotions of those affected and damaged by it. By the film’s conclusion, the end of the siege of Baler – and the end of the Spanish Empire – is seen not with melancholy, but with a feeling of inevitability.

Perhaps, given the political climate in Europe and the sentiments we saw grow to such alarming extents last year, it is the best and only way to look at such a complicated past legacy.

A thought on the Alexandrov Ensemble tragedy and art propaganda

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As we are all aware, populism exists across the whole political spectrum; yet we have learned to react to anything which differs from the left-winged consensus with anger and hysteria.

What recently caught my attention was the reaction of much of the  Western liberal crowd to the tragic perish of one third of the Alexandrov Ensemble in the air-crash in December 2016 and, in parallel, to the assassination of Russian ambassador in Turkey. From voices on social media to newspaper articles such as this gem on Daily News (US), both  tragedies were on a number of occasions described as an ironic payback to Putin’s “death-eater” international politics: his hegemonic strive for power and specifically the Russian intervention in Syria.

Seemingly for some members of the art world (and possibly not only for them), the tragic deaths of the 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble are regarded as some sort of an heroic end: an example of pure, innocent art perishing for a misguided political cause. What a number of these voices did not take into account is the essentially military nature of the Alexandrov Ensemble. Every member comes from the army and the group was founded in Moscow in 1926 as a tool to spread socialist ideals in playing music around the countries of Soviet Russia and the outside world. So even if the Alexandrovci were to die for a political cause (which was, allow me to stress it again, not the case), they would have been in full awareness of that very cause. These artists have not died because of Putin’s intervention in Syria, but solely because of faulty TU-154 planes that should have been removed from the airspace a long time ago.

Speaking of art propaganda:  spreading political ideology through art has indeed always been an instrument of politics, notably during the two World Wars and reaching a notorious peak during the Cold War between the US and Russia. What art propaganda does is that it uses intimate, relatable elements of art and reshapes them into a powerful and comprehensive tool of political influence. One could say that the intimate strength of art lies in the fact that it can be ultimately understood and shared by everyone. On rare moments, someone does propaganda through art so extremely well, such as the Alexandrov Ensemble (who shifted from their all-Russian approach and use influences from Georgian and other countries’ folk traditions), that it becomes a real masterpiece. That is art propaganda at its peak, exactly when we forget its hidden message, and instead get carried away by its powerful voice.

Alexandrov Ensemble performing a well-known Russian song “Smuglyanka-Moldovanka”, once intended to glorify the female partisans of the Russian Civil War

Blancanieves: Dwarfs, poisoned apples, bullfighting and flamenco

Over the centuries since it was first told, there have been many different retellings of Snow White, the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, yet none of those retellings has ever looked quite like this one. Released in Spain in 2012 and directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves is a black-and-white silent film, set in a fictional 1920’s Spain. Here Snow White is a bullfighter, as well as her father and the seven dwarfs, and the wicked queen is an opportunistic murderess. Flamenco music and dancing plays an important part both in the soundtrack and in several scenes. The film was Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film which meant that along with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the year had two separate black-and-white silent film entries in the Academy Awards.

A DIFFERENT FAIRY TALE

Most of us, whether through familiarity with the original fairy tale or its variations, are familiar with the story of the Snow White: A beautiful child named Snow White, a wicked queen with a magic mirror who becomes envious when the said mirror tells her that the young girl is more beautiful than her, the huntsman who is ordered to kill Snow White by the queen and the seven dwarves who take her in and care for her. The poisoned apple, the magical sleep, the glass coffin, and the final kiss of the prince; all of these are, to greater or lesser extents, familiar elements.

It cannot be overstated, then, what a fresh and at times thoroughly different experience Blancanieves is. The film takes place in a fictional 1920’s Spain, specifically in and around the city of Seville. In this version of the fairy tale, Snow White’s father is not a king but a bullfighter – the most famous and well-respected one in the country – named Antonio Villalta. Snow White is, for most of the film, called by her given name, Carmencita. She seems to have inherited both of her parent’s passions and skills: from her father bullfighting and from her mother Flamenco dancing. The wicked queen begins the film as a nurse named Encarna and, rather than a sorceress with a magic mirror, is an opportunistic and vicious schemer who is plainly narcissistic. Her poisoned apple plot is set into motion when she sees Carmencita’s face on the cover of a magazine instead of her own. Snow White becomes renowned across the land not for her beauty, but for her skill at bullfighting. The seven dwarves are actual little people who put on a travelling show called ‘The little dwarf bullfighters’ and who face bull calves in tiny arenas in what, to a modern audience, looks like a mocking parody of traditional Spanish bullfighting.

As can be guessed, the film is not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale. In fact, one segment of the film in which Encarna forces young Carmencita to slave away in the mansion as a humble servant is much more similar to Cinderella. This actually turns out more in favour of the film as it gives the narrative its own unique quality and avoids becoming confused or derivative. Which is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of clichéd storytelling: notably an important character suffers from amnesia, and then becomes cured of it, in a way that comes across more as narratively convenient than believable.

However, that same narrative convenience makes the film stand strong as its own creation, and it helps that it has a fine cast to put in their weight, with expressive faces and gestures that are perfect for the silent film medium.

To those wondering if they should see the film without knowing how it ends: Yes. It is a version of Snow White quite unlike any other, and will leave an impact long after it’s finished.

Of course, no piece of art is made in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to talk in detail about this film without mentioning the artistic, musical, and even religious influences from Spanish culture present in this film work. The following sections will analyse these influences in detail and will thoroughly spoil both important plot points and the ending. Please be aware that now there will be SPOILERS for the film when discussing the cultural and artistic influences present in its scenes.

TOROS Y FLAMENCO

Blancanieves draws heavily from traditional Spanish bullfighting and Flamenco. After all, in the film’s third act Snow White has become famous throughout Spain not for her beauty but for her skill as a Matador while travelling with the dwarf troupe. At the same time, Flamenco dancing plays just as important part, as the soundtrack includes many Flamenco dances and Carmencita plainly has inherited her skill at it from her mother, just as she has inherited her skill at bullfighting from her father.

It almost goes without saying that bullfighting is highly controversial, both in Spain and outside, but it is interesting to note that the film does not seem to offer either a defence or a condemnation of the practice. No bull is ever harmed on-screen. The act of bullfighting itself, of dancing and dodging around the animal with the Matador cape, is at the end notably framed as a Flamenco dance: The fast-paced music and the dizzying rhythms of the dance are used with the same rapid editing and spinning shots previously used for Flamenco dance scenes. This makes the final bullfight feel more like a dance than a confrontation in a way that is arguably meant to celebrate the skill and artistry involved in both practices.

RELIGIOUS SYMBOLISM

It is a simple fact that for most of its history Spain was a fiercely traditional Catholic nation. It is something that can be felt in much of the country’s art, music, literature, and of course in its film industry. As can be expected, this influence is much stronger the further back in time one goes and Blancanieves, in deliberately emulating Spanish cinema from the 20’s, opts for an interesting use of religious symbolism at the end.

The final act of the film has Carmencita face a black, massive and muscled bull aptly named Satanás (the Spanish name for the Devil or the Satan). It charges at Carmencita right at the moment when she has frozen, overwhelmed by a torrent of memories surging back to her as her amnesia – developed earlier in the film when she escaped from Encarna –  subsides. Yet the bull stops a hair’s breadth away from her and stands absolutely still. This allows Carmencita to recover in time to face it at the moment it resumes its attack, and successfully dance around the animal until the time comes to finish it off, at which point the audience crowd pardons the animal by waving white handkerchiefs. The bull is spared, and Carmencita allows Satanás to return to the bull pens.

Then the climax comes. Encarna tricks Carmencita into biting a poisoned apple, and the dwarves chase the villainess into the bullpens as our heroine collapses. Unable to escape, Encarna eludes the dwarfs and hides in an empty pen, until the door opens slowly to reveal Satanás’ ominous horned shadow filling the room. Encarna’s first and only pitiable moment comes when the cornered woman collapses into a trembling, despairing heap as the pen grows darker with the bull’s shadow.

The symbolism is plain if one examines the scene: Satanás is unable to trample and gore Carmencita, the most morally pure and innocent character of the film, even at the moment when she is most vulnerable. At no point during their duel does Carmencita have Satanás stabbed or weakened by other bullfighters, as would normally be done during a traditional bullfight, and at the end Satanás is allowed to live by a dizzying display of visually-apt snow-white handkerchiefs waved by the crowd. Even when holding a sword, Carmencita never sullies her hands with blood, and the white handkerchiefs come to symbolize both forgiveness and life. Encarna, on the other hand, has been a vile murderess throughout the whole film and a classic villainess who has indulged in the deadly sins of Greed, Vanity, Envy, Wrath, Pride and Lust. Where Carmencita is associated with white – both in her being called Snow White and in the handkerchiefs which spare the bull – Encarna is associated with black, and her final scene has her in a dark room, wearing a black mourning dress, shrinking to nothing as a dark, horned shadow falls over her. That final shot of Encarna is meant not so much as a death scene, but rather as the character being dragged to Hell for her sins.

THE GROTESQUE

Spain has a long artistic history of representing grotesque or unusual imagery. Look no further than Goya’s black-and-white drawings, Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes and images, or Luis Buñuel’s film An Andalusian Dog (1929). A more mundane example can be found in Diego Velázquez’s portraits of little people dressed in court regalia, looking out at an unseen audience with intense gazes.

Blancanieves, in adapting the fairy tale, displays its own particular brand of unusual imagery. Consider the seven dwarves, who battle bull calves in miniature arenas to the applause and laughter of the audience. What to a modern audience is a dreadful and even despicable spectacle is treated by the onlookers, and even by the film itself, as a fun show.

Consider the funeral held for Carmencita’s father. As an esteemed bullfighter, his corpse is dressed up in his matador outfit and sat in the middle of a wide and plush couch. The guests troop in and have their picture taken sitting next to him, including former colleagues of his or a group of wailing old women in mourning veils. The effect is both unnerving and surreal, and entirely intentional.

Then there is the final segment of the film, which is discussed in the next section. Suffice it to say that the presentation of this imagery, bizarre and at times incomprehensible to a modern audience, is not only effective but also correctly employed the film. It creates not only a feeling of a different time and place, but lends the narrative an almost otherworldly quality and makes the whole experience feel oddly more dreamlike, and fantastical.

TRAGIC ENDING

Traditional Spanish literature has tended towards tragedy. Some of the most famous Spanish novels – such as Don Quixote, the most internationally famous piece – have had sombre endings or tragic events befalling its characters. In imitating classic Spanish films, Blancanieves is no different.

In the original fairy tale, Snow White is put into a magical sleep by a poisoned apple and sleeps inside a glass coffin until she is awaken by the kiss of a prince. However, in the film there is a surprising revelation made late during the second act: After being taken in by the dwarves, the amnesiac Carmencita is playfully nicknamed ‘Blancanieves’ – Snow White – by her rescuers, “Like in the fairy tale.” they say.

This twist extends to the ending. Carmencita is tricked into biting a poisoned apple, and the ending of the film shows our heroine encased in a glass coffin, being exhibited at a circus freak show and tended to by Rafita, one of the dwarfs and her main love interest. For a price, spectators are allowed to come and kiss the unconscious young woman. Strangers, old men and even women all try their luck at ‘reviving’ her, with the implication that this happens every night.

The final shots seemingly show that Carmencita can never wake up. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, we see a single tear bead from the corner of her eye and roll down her still cheek.

With this final shot, the film holds true to the Spanish tradition of tragedy, wherein the characters which least deserve it often suffer the most, even beyond the end of their story.

This (and the other elements mentioned) makes Blancanieves a viewing experience that is both familiar, but also unfamiliar, to those who know of the fairy tale and are always open to new interpretations of it, even if they don’t always end happily.

 

/Javier Alcover

Don Quixote: The tragedy of madness

In April of this year, Spain commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of The Ingenious Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes is arguably one of history’s most famous Spanish-language authors – and certainly Spain’s most well-known author – and his novel has become one of the most celebrated pieces of Spanish literature. To many, it is not only a seminal work but also one of the first examples of a modern literary narrative. Now, four hundred years after the death of its author, the book’s influence on Spanish popular culture and on the world is still being felt. From popular sayings, through film adaptations and language appropriations – the term ‘Quixotic’ originated from this novel – to even references in recent video games. With that in mind, it is worth re-visiting the main character of this tale and examining the madness that defines his character, as well as the underlying and inescapable tragedy surrounding the deranged knight and his adventures.

THE KNIGHT ERRANT

Written and published in 1605, Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a gentleman landowner – hidalgo in Spanish – from the region of La Mancha. Obsessed with tales of knightly quests and chivalric romances, Quixano reads so many books and tales on the subject that he ends up going mad and believing himself to be living one of those same tales. Determined to prove himself a knight errant, he dons a suit of armour, takes up a lance, and rides his steed to travel the land and right wrongs wherever he fights them as Don Quixote de la Mancha, later on acquiring a squire named Sancho Panza. As all knights must have a maiden fair in whose name they fight, he declares to be battling in the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he believes to be superhumanly beautiful despite knowing next to nothing about her.

The problem is that Quixano is elderly and wiry, and his horse is worn-out. His armour is rusted and his shield his old. His adventures often result in his getting hurt more often than not. His lady love, Dulcinea, is in fact Aldonza Lorenzo, a girl from a homely farmgirl who occasionally prostitutes herself. The people Quixote encounters view him as either a laughingstock to be played practical jokes on, or a dangerous madman. His family go to increasingly desperate lengths to bring him home and restore his sanity, including at one point literally dragging him home in a cage.

In his own story, Don Quixote is a figure of ridicule. A madman who believes he’s in a fairy tale world, fighting for a noble lady as he jousts against giants and rights the many evils of the world, all while in reality he attacks innocent travellers, charges at windmills, never pays for staying nights and the inns he encounters, and wears a barber’s bowl on his head as though it were a great helmet.

And yet, as one reads through El Quixote, one cannot help but ask a question: What is it about his madness that makes him so laughable? That he lives in a fantasy land where evil is punished, and the world has a rhyme and reason to it? Quixano’s tragedy is indeed his madness, for it makes him believe that the world in which he inhabits is, at its core, fair and just and one in which he is able to make a difference. He sets out to do good, with arguably the noblest intentions of any character in the novel, and is instead rewarded with deception and harsh punishment.

NOBLE INTENTIONS IN A CRUEL WORLD

One remembers a specific instance of from the novel, wherein our main character comes across a youth tied to a tree and being beaten by his master. Quixote’s reaction is to reprimand the master and demand that he free the youth, and swear to never again raise his hand against him. The master does so, and yet as soon as Quixote leaves the youth is beaten again, harder than before.

Quixote’s reaction to seeing what he believes is a danger to others is to face it, in order to defeat it. Whenever he encounters travellers, he endeavours to treat with them honesty. He gains the aid of Sancho Panza as his squire by promising him lands and titles, and it seems he truly has every intention of keeping his promise. At his core, what the character attempts to do is to live the life of a knight errant: He travels the land to its farthest reaches, fights duels in the name of honour, and proclaims his love for his ‘maiden’ Dulcinea for all who can hear. The clearest case of his attempts to emulate a knight errant is his tilting against windmills – he honestly believes that they are terrible giants, and that by battling and defeating the he will help make the lands a safer place

But the reality that Cervantes places Alonso Quixano in is often a harsh one, and he is amongst the first to suffer the consequences of both his madness and his idealism. He is deceived on more than one occasion, such as by the master beating the youth, or when he is convinced by a group of convicted criminals that they are being unjustly led to the gallows. He frees them, and for his efforts he is rewarded with a severe beating that leaves him and Sancho Panza lying on the side of the road, nursing their injuries.

More poignantly, early in his adventures Quixote believes that he is officially knighted by a lord in his castle. In reality, it is a sham ceremony, improvised by a tavern-keeper whose tavern has already been the stage for a fight between several customers and Quixote – who had also ruined the horse’s water trough – and who carries out the ‘knighting’ only to be rid himself of the madman.

The cruel irony that if Quixano were, indeed, the protagonist of a knightly tale then he could very well be a great hero. Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov once famously observed that Don Quixote has a surprisingly long career as a knight errant, and is in fact quite dangerous in a fight. His attempts to emulate knightly virtues – honesty, piety, and defence of the weak – are sincere and well-meaning. If the world he lived in was actually the world of the knightly tales he obsesses over, he would be celebrated and honoured.

But that is not the world he lives in, and the tale ends perhaps the only way it could: Quixano recovers his sanity, and abandons the identity of Don Quixote, albeit not without reluctance, only to die shortly after.

QUIXOTE’S MELANCHOLY

At the end of the novel, when Quixano recovers his sanity and finally leaves behind the adventuring of Don Quixote, one cannot help but feel a sense of defeat. In following the character and his follies, there is a sense of genuine adventure behind his actions, even excitement. Don Quixote is a madman, yet he seems tireless in his quest to do good in the world and his way of seeing things even becomes endearing to the reader, despite the obvious damage he causes. So when reality is finally allowed to triumph, there is no real sense of relief, and the novel ultimately ends with Quixano falling ill and dying after returning home.

The feeling is that the final victory of the real world over Quixote’s fantasy robs it of a man whose ultimate aim was to do good. After all, what kind of world does Quixano truly live in? One in which he is lied to, tricked, ridiculed, humiliated, caged, his personal possessions destroyed and he himself attacked on multiple occasions. Is it any wonder that his return to sanity is so reluctant on his part, and so melancholic in its final result?

Cervantes intended Don Quixote to serve as a deconstruction of knightly tales by making his protagonist exceedingly vulnerable, and placing him into the harshness of the real world. So perhaps there is a further lesson to be taken from the novel and questions to be posed to ourselves, especially now as day by day we see more people retreating into conformist denial, cheap populist rhetoric, simple demagoguery, or even elaborate fantasy escapism, all while the world keeps turning and stark reality refuses to abandon us.

 

– Javier Alcover

 

 

Image: “Don Quijote y Sancho” by Pablo Picasso (1955), Fundación Picasso, free content.

Click ‘like’ to send a condolence? The art of mourning in the era of post-modern technology

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Zdzisław-Beksiński-grim-reaper
Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled

Grief is an inseparable part of the human condition. But what is grief today and how do we mourn as compared to mourning in the recent decades? As humans, we are used to place our feelings in words, spoken or written; instinctively, we need to make them tangible, formulate them and mould them in order to make sense of the world. The super-speeded attention driven character of the social media, namely Facebook, and the specific language it uses has significantly altered our perception of grievance. By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

The essence of this instinctive need to vocalize our personal grief is, above all, the need to share it. Indeed the urgency to express ourselves generally differs from one to another but ultimately, to share our feelings, offer little parts of ourselves in language is a natural thing to do. By ventilating our grief and our loss of a beloved one, we not only act upon the responsibility to inform our friends and family of a sad event. We also ask for support, for stories to hear that we never heard, for love and memories to share. Internally and individually we start to reflect upon the many different values of life: love, friendship and family support, empathy, fulfilment, values we hold. And, naturally, upon encountering death, the awareness of our own life’s mortality becomes stronger and more urgent.

By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

Themes originating in grief and responding to humans’ questions of life and death have been explored in art for centuries. Memento mori, or ‘remember you must die’ in Latin, is a classic reminder of our mortality and inevitable end. It stands on the very other end of the antiquity’s Nunc est bibendum (‘Now is the time to drink’) theme of debauchery and joie-de-vivre. Memento mori scolds us for enjoying the pleasures of life. Its suggestive depictions and symbols can be found in all spheres of artistic expression, from paintings of well-known Renaissance painters, through music (such as, but not only restricted to requiems) and literary masterpieces. Funeral aesthetics and cemetery architecture is a memento mori story in itself. Think of the famous ossuary in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt or Kutna Hora Ossuary in the Bohemian part of the Czech Republic. Another genre of memento mori is the ‘danse macabre’, the dance of the death. The grim reaper, usually in form of a skeleton or two, accompanies a living flourishing human, hovering discreetly in the background or tugging on her clothes to invite her to a dance from which there is no way back. Below is a depiction by Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Martinelli, ‘The Death Comes to the Banquet Table.’ The merriness from around the table has just been interrupted, the guests are in disbelief and refusal: “You want to take me?” asks the nobleman to the right, “why me?” We are shocked and apalled at this unseemly interference.

Death_Comes_to_the_Banquet_Table_-_Memento_Mori_-_Giovanni Martinelli_NOMA
Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table, between 1625 and 1638

In still-life painting, such pieces, a sub-genre of memento mori, are referred to as vanitas. The term originates in the opening lines of the ‘Book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ In vanitas, the presence of death is shown in symbolic depictions of the fleetingness of life and earthly possessions. They are meant to convey a moral message to the audience – do not waste your time on the passing pleasures and lustre of material things, as they will not last. Life is in your hands, measure it carefully. Vanitas were especially spread amongst Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century, the real masters of the discipline   Artists such as Pieter Claesz were seemingly obsessed by the macabre topic. Have a look at the image below, Cleasz’ ‘Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball’ – we could name nearly a dozen of vanitas symbols embedded in the canvas. Of course there is the skull (a straightforward symbol of mortality), the watch (the passing of the time, the clock is ticking), the violin (the fleetingness, ephemerality of life), the glass bubble in which we can see the artist’s reflection; a reference to the fragility of our daily realities, ready to pop at any moment.

Pieter_Claesz._-_Vanitas_with_Violin_and_Glass_Ball_-_WGA04974
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628

We can find hundreds and thousands of examples of memento mori in literary works throughout centuries. Writers, poets and philosophers seem to have even more pressing urgency to explain and dissect the predicament of grief. Grief tends to be magnified as the ever present burden of human life, but also beautified and caressed, nearly appreciated in the smooth lyrical form. ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis, Roland Barthes’ ‘Mourning Diary’ or ‘A Very Easy Death’ by Simone De Beauvoir – all of these are masterpieces of mourning, beautifully put together in remembrance of a person, experience, though, a lifetime.

The title image of this article is by Zdzislaw Beksinski, who, now that I mention this, actually never titled his works. All Beksinski’s works are filled with dark sorrow. Understandably so, since Beksinski got his share of tragedies – in 1998 died his wife Zofia and on Christmas Eve a year later his son Tomasz committed suicide. After the tragedy, Beksinski is known to have always kept an envelope hanging at his apartment’s wall addressed “For Tomek in case I kick the bucket.” The artist himself came to a tragic end when he was stabbed to death by a young relative in 2005. What is clear, however, is that despite, or maybe due to such uneasy life Beksinski succeeded in making his art as beautifully breathtakingly sorrowful as they are. (Have a look at his website here, a piece of art in its own.)

French philosopher Jacques Derrida published only couple of years before his death, ‘The Work of Mourning’ (2001) a collection of essays, articles and reflections collected from period of some twenty years. The texts originated as memorials and condolences written after deaths of famous personalities, Derrida’s peers and friends, and persons he admired. These texts are artfully written, nailing down both personal and collective, emotional and intellectual sense of loss. In his work Derrida pays his homage to these great personalities but he also highlights the importance of friendship, and what becomes of friendship after we lose the friend. He touches upon the feeling of guilt and that of unpaid debts. ‘There come moments,’ he writes, ‘when, as mourning demands [deuil oblige], one feels obligated to declare one’s debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to friends.’ (Derrida, 2001)

Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living.

Of course, we cannot all weave masterpieces of our griefs and transform our losses into novels and paintings, and that is not my point here. These examples show the fact that there can be a certain quality of expression found in grief. Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living. Saying this, we should note that Derrida was originally opposed to this exhibitionism of feelings and words, hesitant to write and later on to gather all the mourning texts together in a collection. He explains his reasons:

What I thought impossible, indecent, and unjustifiable, what long ago and more or less secretly and resolutely I had promised myself never to do…was to write following the death, not after, not long after the death by returning to it, but just following the death, upon or on the occasion of the death, at the commemorative gatherings and tributes, in the writings “in memory” of those who while living would have been my friends, still present enough to me that some “declaration,” indeed some analysis or “study,” would seem at that moment completely unbearable. (Derrida, 2001, pp. 49-50)

According to Derrida, one who speaks of the recently deceased puts himself in great danger of dishonesty, if unintentional. What is this dishonesty he speaks of? What Derrida had in mind is how easily the words we carefully select to praise our lost ones can turn into small-scale privately conducted ‘political’ moves. We pity ourselves for having to live without the deceased, we turn a homage for another into the ‘I’ and ‘me’ reflection of simple narcissism. We grief for ourselves to have been left behind. We tend to share this transformed ego-driven grief, instead of the initial pure one. It needs to be remembered, states Derrida, that we ought to give credit to a unique friendship without falling into such trap of self-regard. (Derrida, 2001)

‘The works of mourning’ touch upon two points that I find to be of key relevance to the way mourning is processed today in social media. First of them, as Derrida highlights, is the utter uniqueness of a friendship’s status and its very individuality and unrepeatability once the person is no longer ‘with us’. No one knew our friend in the same way as we did.  The twofold character of contemporary Facebook-maintained friendship possesses at the same time a uniqueness of such connection (the unique context in which we knew each other) but also generality, a certain shallowness, that comes with a growing internationality and transiency of our lives. For some, Facebook and social media present the only contact they have with friends and families at the other end of the world. Constant flux of our daily realities makes it more difficult than ever to maintain personal contact with all the friendships created in another countries, on different continents. Facebook audience constitutes a very special sort of ultimately diversified audience – although making up a circle of ‘common friends,’ they are in fact people from utterly disparate backgrounds, stages of life, age, beliefs. You could be from a different world, and a Facebook friend of a friend of a friend would still be in the same (un)know about you as if you were his neighbour. An important factor when it comes to grief expressed in social media is to understand the nature of its users, of the generation who use it the most. That is, for example – and allow me this generalisation in order of simplification – predominantly young professionals who migrate from one country to another without necessarily needing any base ground to settle. Because yes, that is one thing social media allow us – a certain degree of ‘intimacy’ (if disputable) on distance, a means to keep in touch, an illusion of proximity.

The second point to note in Derrida’s collection is the heightened feeling of indebtedness in grief; the creeping feeling that we have not valued the time we had together enough, that much more could have been said. From this guilt partly comes the need to justify our knowledge of the person who is no longer with us. Inwardly, remembering him or her for ourselves, as they were in us, and outwardly, sharing with the others, what we knew of them; shouting: I knew her too! She was special to me too! We justify our friendship to our Facebook friends and families of our deceased friend who we have never met. Yet what else can be done? How else can we address these people, for us really just imaginary people living somewhere in the Facebook universe, since we never met them?  “Speaking is impossible,” writes Derrida in Memoires for Paul de Man, “but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness.”

Even if we call it inevitable, how does the way we speak of our grief and comment on the losses of our connections on Facebook differ from that in the ‘real’ life? Probably the most obvious difference is the directness with which social media bring personal loss to the utmost end of public attention. The very private is transformed into a spectacle, in this case not only to be seen but also available to be discussed by everyone. The scale of whom we grieve for has also changed. Not only we can now feel genuine sorrow for our close ones, but Facebook and Twitter allow us to pay respect to our favourite film star or musician. We can see such RIP messages popping up on our Facebook pages every so often, and we share them and comment on them. Can you imagine sending a condolence letter to Alan Rickman’s family? I love Rickman’s every single performance, yet I cannot imagine myself going as far as that. So why do that on Facebook? Why indeed – Facebook gives an easy story to be told by everyone: it gives us power to be part of otherwise inaccessible, grieving process. How simple and instant it is to post a RIP message on the wall and ‘remember.’

Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

In theory, this is a great way to share our sadness over the loss of our favourite actor or acclaimed director. Fair enough, it is a quick and painless way, as otherwise we would not have the opportunity to share this with the world. The problem is that often these RIP messages turn from harmless spectacle into absurd theatre, exactly into what Derrida warned against: a narcissist race for acknowledgment. Such situations become mad hunts for the funniest quote of the deceased, the rarest video clip, the best picture, the wittiest summary of someone’s life in Twitter’s 140 character limit. If we honestly ask ourselves why we have to share the sad news in a super-speeded-way on our wall – what will the answer be? Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

Whatever the case, we should always keep in mind to whom we want to address our words and what reaction these words could produce. Derrida in text dedicated Roland Barthes writes:

“I would like to dedicate these thoughts to him, give them to him, and destine them for him. Yet they will no longer reach him, and this must be the starting point of my reflection; they can no longer reach him, reach all the way to him, assuming they ever could have while he was still living. So where do they go? To whom and for whom?” (Derrida, 2001, p.35)

The thing is that Facebook grievance presents a confusing situation from several points of view. Are you obliged to inform the Facebook community, the deceased friends and acquaintances, since they would otherwise never know? And how are you supposed to respond to someone posting of their loss on the social network? First step of thought is that if someone shares such private and painful information with the world, you may feel safe to assume that you can react. But what do you make of a person who ‘likes’ and RIP post, or a notice of a friend’s passing away? What do they think when they click that like button?

As I already noted, it seems to be a slightly different situation with condolence messages for the people we ‘knew’ on Facebook. Facebook messages and comments on the wall can provide huge support to the close family and friends and I am far from claiming the opposite. The wall becomes a memorial in its own, the love expressed becomes eternal. At least for now, when we still firmly believe in the eternal power of the digital world. Certainly, to send a Facebook message as a condolence if we do not have any other means of contacting the close members of the family, it is still better than nothing. Then again, in the digital era we live in, is it really impossible to find contact details online; to google up an email address, or a phone number? How much more would it cost us to send a condolence by mail, a bouquet of flowers or pick up the phone and call? Or, god forbid, to pay a visit in person? How much value has a like of an RIP post, if we compare it to Derrida’s texts singularly dedicated to his friends? Maybe these are incomparable subjects and it is unfair of me to put them together. It is clear that social media bring some very interesting elements of grief that are worth considering, both from their positive and negative aspects. However, following the great classics of painting and literature, even mourning can be taken with all serenity, with feelings of beauty and life that prevails. I cannot help myself but wonder that some of the most special selfless elements of grief get lost in the social media’s display of mourning, whilst some of the worst ones become easily highlighted.

 

Alice Maselnikova


References

Derrida, Jacques. The work of mourning  (2001) The University of Chicago Press Books

Images

Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled. Oil on canvas Available at www.beksinski.pl

Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table. Oil on canvas – 114.2 x 158 cm, Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Photo : Galerie G. Sarti

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628. Oil on oak – 35.9 × 59 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Dostoyevsky 125 years on: secret yearnings of the human soul

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125 years ago on 9 February 1881 died arguably the most well-known Russian novelist in Europe, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский). What should a today’s reader remember about him as a writer, thinker and a man?

In his vast work consisting of 11 novels, three novellas, 17 short stories and many other publications, Dostoyevsky depicted a staggering amount of social plots and characters. What they share is not just the urban and rural backdrop of the tsarist Russia, but Dostoyevsky’s ceaseless pursuit to understand the human soul. And no wonder, already during Belle Époque intellectual circles in European cafés considered that the Russians with their “great soul” are particularly apt at perceiving the fragile and complex fabric of our anima. The vastness of Siberia, chill of continental winters, and constant threat of a foreign invasion from several directions explains the emergence of tsarist autocracy. But perhaps it also led the Russians to start being strongly attuned to suffering and passing moments of happiness. In this Dostoyevsky’s writing is exemplary: with the same blow, his work can put the human soul at the top of a pedestal of virtue and ethics, only to strike it down the very next moment to the abyss of despair, insanity, or petty day-to-day maliciousness.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s last novel, is such a work. Sons to a debauched father, who spent his life as a womanizer and careless buffoon, capture in their personalities different aspects of Russian character. Dmitri seems like the national archetype, a sensualist with a short temper but a warm heart, contrasting him to haughty intellectual Ivan, who is actually concerned for humanity to such an extent that it leads him to reject God as the ultimate cause of grief and misery. Dostoyevsky’s Christian ideal is clearly in the third brother, caring Alyosha. Alyosha does not deny there is suffering, but tries to sublimate it through help, compassion and perceiving the good even in the shades of darkness.

In The Brothers Karamazov, human yearnings reach their full play. The seductive beauty of Grushenka, a woman whose abuse by a Polish officer had led her to torment men, sparks off a vicious struggle between a son and father for her attention. Proud and beautiful Katerina, on the other hand, is trying to save her fiancé Dmitri from himself. Even if that means creating a barrier between her and Ivan, the two of them sharing an actual, yet hidden love. Next to these colourful characters, Alyosha’s good nature might seem such that his personality is almost disappearing. This makes a parallel between him and Count Myshkin, the hero of another novel, The Idiot. Both are Dostoyevsky’s answer to what he saw as problems of his age: that much suffering is created if one gives in too greatly to human passions and relies on rationality alone to solve complex social ills. The political manifestation of this was for Dostoyevsky in nihilism and socialism, as portrayed on the revolutionaries of The Possessed. But human psyché is thus not just in politics; the effort to uproot and reorganise all social structures is only one consequence of it.

The Russian author tried to demonstrate that we eternally, perpetually yearn for bliss, satisfaction and perfection, but the struggle to reach them here and now fuels rifts, conflicts and creates even more destruction. My happiness might be your doom, as Dmitri realises as hid madness deepens from the thought that Grushenka may “fall into his father’s clutches”. The ancient Greeks understood this very well too, but unlike Dostoyevsky they saw the conflict as without a resolution and not needing any higher justification than itself. Life could be regarded as beautiful nevertheless, because its greatness and its misery portray one whole, a piece of art that is a tragedy. In one of the highly memorable quotes from The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri observes that “[t]he awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dostoyevsky therefore agrees with the premise that human passions clash; even in beauty darkness and the light are intertwined. Yet for him this conflict can be reconciled in God, specifically in (Orthodox) Christianity. While human beings cannot entirely forgive injustices, Christ did and can. The best one can do, Dostoyevsky believes, is therefore approximating our behaviour to the Christian ideal, which is the background of the characters of Myshkin and Alyosha. Their strength of character is not supposed to be “diminished”, but to offer a glimpse of a different form of acting: understanding and letting people reach their potential for goodness, rather than a constant effort to impose one’s will and subject others to the individual’s schemes and plans.

In Ivan, who represents Western modernity, we are offered strong rebukes to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan rejects Christianity, because even if God existed, he says, he could not love humanity at all: meaningless pain and sorrow that he creates are without excuse, particularly for children who could not yet even commit any sin. Chapter 4 of the book contains this horrifying paragraph, narrated by Ivan to Alyosha:

“There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?”

Where was God then? asks Ivan. To press this point further, he also tells to Alyosha a Biblical apocrypha about grand inquisitor, which since then became known as a story on its own. (The reader can see it below in the riveting performance of John Gielgud in the 1975 short film from the Open University.)

In this story happening during the times of Spanish inquisition, Christ again walks the earth, performing miracles. But the grand inquisitor puts him behind the bars, claiming that Jesus interrupted their work. He is not needed; he is actually the reason behind human misery, the inquisitor tells him. Instead of offering humans bread, guidance in the form of earthly rule, and certainty of afterlife, he only gave them freedom. And that freedom, the inquisitor says, is good for nothing, because it cannot satiate passions and needs. With freedom, human beings will only go after each other’s necks. Perhaps Christ therefore did not love humanity at all, when he put on them such otherworldly demands, Ivan and the grand inquisitor say together. To that Jesus replies only by a kiss.

I will leave the reader to make his or hers own conclusions. What is clear is that the author of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or short stories such as The Meek One or The Gambler was always dominated by the quest to understand what is happening in human minds, hearts and souls. Perhaps this might give us a few thoughts to ponder about even in the digital 21st century?

 

-Stanislav Máselník

(updated on 19 February 2016)