Posted in book review, Miscellany

On Philip Pullman’s Republic of Heaven

A great writer of our time is Phillip Pullman in his moment of pleasure.

Great writers are great because they know how to tell entertaining and enduring stories without religious and didactic overtones. Moreover, they are unafraid of speaking their minds without a qualm of conventional belief or sectarian principles. Yesterday, I read an essay called “The Republic of Heaven” from Demon Voices by Philip Pullman, a renowned British best-selling writer whose intelligently tongue in cheek styled narrative raises the dander of the Catholic Church for his acerbic view of the orthodox teaching. With my reading of Candide by Voltaire still fresh in mind, I find Pullman and his philosophy of free thought familiar with that of Voltaire and realize that true intellectuals think among people and live in social companions of public spirits for the good of humanity. Thus, here is my discursive impression of Pullman’s “The Republic of Heaven.”

Pullman urges us to step aside from habit, a banal molded frame of life, to see the world outside the box, which will lead to an immense world of delight, the Republic of Heaven, for we are worthier than we think we know because we are such stuff made of wonder. Pullman’s heroine is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who has resisted against the magistrate of grim and gray puritanical ethos that decries an expression of feelings and emotions under religious disciplines. She remonstrates against the cold-hearted Mrs. Reed thus: “You think I have no feelings and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness, but I cannot live so.” Her demand for love stems from her need for it, which is an essential food for the soul that serves a purpose and pique for life. This sense of love so wanting in Jane cannot be quelled by false optimism that such distress is the best for the best of all possible world. On the contrary, it is an outcry of the soul desirous of warm and soft human touch that thrills the heart and invigorates the mind. Human beings cannot live by Reason alone, forced to utilize when the right of five senses is forfeited and bound by misconceived religious concepts and false moral measures.

The founder of Logotherapy, the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl, witnessed a learned Jewish woman in his concentration camp killing herself despite daily recitation of wise sayings of the Torah supposedly being a consolation. Frankl affirms that we humans cannot live without the joy of life, that is, an appreciation of pleasure to the senses because otherwise, we will degenerate to a provisional being living day to day like prisoners of dreary dungeons in the darkness of hopelessness. Pullman agrees with Franklin the creative and experiential values of pleasure that keep a journey to live a purposeful and meaningful life.

The creation and experience of art spark the joy of moments that can be synonymous with a meaning of happiness in life. Some find consolation in religion, but it does not give them whys to live for, nor kindness to show hows. Pullman’s concept of the Republic of Heaven comes to a head prominently when we are stranded in the chaos of existential vacuum, the kind of which the loyal and conscientious butler Stevens felt when he lost his faith in his idealized employer in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. However, if Stevens pursued his love for Miss Kenton and appreciated the pleasure of love he consciously denied, he would not have felt the sudden void in his life. The sense of delight in the physical world is the essence of the Republic of Heaven that he and we are conditioned to ignore. The point of Pullman’s philosophy is that we are too serious about the pleasure our physical world provides. And it’s not a chemical-induced euphoria for escape from the world but a new attitude toward our perspectives of it. Elenore Roosevelt also knew how to become a citizen of the Republic, thus: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I should try that.

Posted in book review

‘I Belong Here’, by Anita Sethi – Book Review

To tell a story within you is an expression of yourself, an affirmation of your identity, in an expanse of will wielded by the spirit of freedom. Storytelling is, in fact, a way of logotherapy that helps you find meaning in life from your daily tasks to your traumatic experiences by sublimating the pains of the heart to the blessings of the spirit, in the realization of Amore Feti. In this book, Anita Sethi shoehorns her experience of racism in England into a rivetingly ingenious travel memoir in the spectacle of a beautiful natural landscape where she belongs.

Her narrative has a lyrical quality with a poet’s rhythm that reminds me of a Portuguese Fado song. Her words sing her story of an uneasy love relationship with her own country into a continuous fugue of love, betrayal, loneliness, and friendship vested with her experiences with people and nature. It is at once dolorous and enchanting as if to listen to a mysteriously elusive melody hummed by a ghost of a sad maiden who died in brokenheartedness. Yet, this doesn’t mean Sethi is a ghost damsel in distress bemoaning her betrayed love. She is a warrior who chose the pen to vindicate her attacker and other minor offenders of her South Asian ethnicity as a way to overcome her fear and anxiousness, arising from her ashes like Nietzsche’s noble phoenix.

Sethi’s narrative then becomes a eulogy to the natural landscape of Great Britain; she finds an elbow room, a niche, her library of wonder. As Shakespeare pointed out, nature is exempt from public haunt, finds good in everything. It is a grand luxurious spa free of charge to all, although that is not always tainted by the malice of incivility on the part of humans. However, Sethi, in her story, asserts that no one can take away her right to belong in the beauty of nature and the country she regards as a home and proclaims her self-identity by telling her personal story incorporating the words into the images of British mountains and forests, exempting her from a malady of social ills and elevating her to the citizens of the Universe.

The book is an excellent bedtime fellow when you want something thoughtful but not burdened with elements associated with scholarly apparatuses. The narrative is flowing melodiously, and the author’s spirit is within the texts, full of emotions but nuanced in her infatuation with the beauty of British landscapes that provide her with holistic healing power. They say you don’t protect what you don’t care about, and you don’t care what you have not experienced. To appreciate the value of this book doesn’t mean you have to be of a particular ethnicity, gender, or race. As long as you have taste and judgment universal in all humans, especially with a strong sense of empathy and a lover of nature, you will find her story alluringly gripping and feel her pains and loves as if they were your own.

Posted in book review, Film Review

‘Papillon (1973)’ – film review

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From Shakespeare to Hemingway, the resilient human spirit rising above life’s challenges is always a high human drama. Nietzsche said: “What does not kill you only makes you stronger.” This paean to a noble human spirit against the existential strains of life has been a paramount theme for masterpieces of arts, especially in literature and cinema appealing to the universal audiences, touching the deepest valleys of human consciousness and pulling at the heartstrings all in a polyphony of humanity. It is this very reason that Papillon (1973), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, still evokes ineffable inspiration and indelible impression so powerfully displayed on the screen with the authenticity of a true story of a real-life character.

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Papillon, a butterfly in French, is a nickname of Henri Charriere (played by Steve McQueen), a safe-cracker framed for having murdered a pimp because he has a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Henri was sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana and decides to escape from the man-made inferno where death is the only way out of the murderous maltreatment doubled with dysentery and hard labor, which makes me wonder if the Nazis, especially Himmler and his ilk of the Final Solution, adapted the French Penal Colony system into concentration camps during World War II. And yet, Papillon’s will to escape and to live as a free man supersede the hellish daily realities fraught with endlessly cruel labor, inhumane solitary confinements, prolonged starvation, and deaths of his fellow inmates, all of which seem to conspire to break his will to live to conform to the totalitarianism of inhumanity in the name of punishment of his crime that he didn’t commit. Escape after escape, hope against hope, and betrayal after betrayal is fortune’s malice trying to overthrow his sovereign state. Still, Papillon’s sturdy mind exceeds the compass of her will, even if it takes him to the furious watery main and the murderous cliff in the Devil’s Island.

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The stellar performance of Steve McQueen, playing the role of Henri Charriere, renders a sense of verisimilitude of the character and the story so convincingly that you dive into his emotions without realizing a boundary between a screen and yourself. Upon watching the film, you feel that you have contracted a severe biological strain of Stockholm syndrome with the Henri character on whose biography the film is based, which bestows the power of reality and the authenticity of truth upon your mind. Steve McQueen, often referred to as the King of Uber Cool, is excellent in portraying the convict with extraordinary feats of endurance and rebellion against the totalitarian penal system that wrongly imprisons his free spirit. McQueen’s abilities as a character actor shine when he commands his presence in a way that seems wholly authentic without overt gestures and contrived charisma but with his eyes sparkling even in the filthy prison uniform that speaks a thousand words surrounding him like a radiant halo as a token for his strong will to freedom.

This film is, in a way, reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in terms of old Santiago’s indomitable burst of pep to fight the shark appropriating his hard-won big fish. The old man might look feeble and weak in comparison with the mighty power of the vast sea. Still, it is his will to win the battle against the force of sea that is sublimated into a victory of the human spirit with the resounding  dictum of this feat of humanity: “Man can be conquered, but cannot be destroyed.” That’s what comes to my mind while watching this excellent film about an ordinary human being with an extraordinary power of will to freedom. Hamlet uttered: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” To Henri Charriere, such contemplation is a meaningless echo of a defeatist. Henri is more of Macbeth working out on his plan for life as a free man with stubborn courage: “We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail.” And Lo! Did he not take the advice of the Bard! And so, splendidly!

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Author’s Note: I watched the film last night and was immersed in the characters and the story. Not that I am an admirer of Steve McQueen but that he’s one of the greatest actors who vanished like a meteor gives a special meaning to this film. It is one of the best performances in his acting career and will always linger in our hearts. 

Posted in book review

‘The Remains of the Day’, by Kazuo Ishiguro – review

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ask anyone and you will find everyone has something to talk about life with natural octaves from the highest note to the lowest and best registrar recorded over the vicissitudes of life as if living an ordinary life without a material curriculum vitae were a sign of defeatism synonymous with rootlessness. More often than not, a straightforwardly elliptical, honest-to-goodness narrative is not considered a smashing subject matter for a bestseller that merits an entire aisle of any bookseller, but the story of English butler Stevens shoehorns his ordinary work experience into a suitably fashionable stance for a modern-day memoir that reads like a continual fugue of flattering hopes, misguided beliefs, despotic self-denials, cruel disappointments, and smothered pleasures, all elegantly interwoven into a polyphony of life in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Moment of Reckoning Stevens falls into, pace the general opinion of the mass, results not from his disillusioned loyalty toward Nazi sympathizer Lord Darlington but from his own disoriented value and belief systems in accordance with the changing zeitgeist in the wake of the two great wars. Lord Darlington epitomized what dignity and magnanimity meant to Stevens in a way that his position as a butler was as equally prestigious and sovereign as that of his aristocratic employer Lord Darlington, a figure of respectful English peerage that deserved of his dedication and devotion. It’s really a case of ‘Qualis rex, talis glex,’ meaning “As is the king, so is the people.” And it was this belief system that made Stevens endure occupational humiliation from arrogant guests of high birth, the grief of the death of his father, and tender feelings toward Ms. Kenton, a former head housekeeper at the Darlington Mansion. In fact, such belief system based on seemingly antediluvian values in the post-modern era was Stevens’ lifeline that had kept him going until he took a trip to see now married Ms. Kenton, a kind of Beatrice-like figure guiding Dante from Hell and Purgatory to Paradise.

Stevens’s existential dilemma stems from his existential vertigo in the aftermath of the wars and the subsequent social changes that upended the foundations of the collective value and belief systems of society. Stevens’s inner world was put into an existential vacuum, a void that can only be filled by a sense of purpose and new attitudes toward life in search of finding meaning therein. Rather than bemoaning his life as a boring butler, Stevens kept trying to find meaning in what he had been doing, what he was still doing, and what he would do by asking himself the question of his own life to which only he could answer; that is, to a life he could only respond by being responsible. And it was not a reactionary response with his fists clenched in bitterness and a sprit of French Revolution against the privileged few, but his own examination of his life that felt a void in a sense of direction in life.

Kazuo Ishiguro created a character whose existential dilemma is relatable and pitiable with his mastery of characterization, the wealth of imaginations, and study of human nature, in his signature elliptical narrative skills laced with nuanced emotions that never lay the whole character bare to the eyes of the public. He’s a fantastic writer who shows readers that a good writer is capable of travel and metamorphoses no matter where he was born or what he looks like. I wonder how many writers tried to break free from their biological planes and even dreamed about being who they wanted to be, confidently and naturally crossing the boundaries of culture and race just as Ishiguro did without branding his Japanese cultural and Asian traits as a convenient foundation for suitably fashionable “ethnic” literature. All in all, this is a fascinating book to observe how social changes can affect an individual and how one copes with such historic and cultural juggernauts in search of meaning in life. This book is a testament to the magical craft of writing that a writer should be all that he is capable of becoming no matter who he is. For a writer is also a magician of words, a wondrous sort of shapeshifter in letters.

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Posted in Miscellany

Ancient and Modern on Amore Fati

Hope is not all sweet-minded and sweet-eyed as imagined by armchair intellectuals and best-selling writers when we stumble into moments of existential vertigo in real life situations. Shakespeare knew a thing about the nature of hope as an analgesic to numb the strains of daily life thus: “The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” So much so that his martyred predecessor Sir Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen, had already said, “A drowning man will clutch at a straw.” Even before these two benefactors of humanity, the humble ancient Greek farmer/poet Hesiod affirmed hope as a psychosomatic pain relief in the story of Pandora’s Box in which only hope was left to console crestfallen Pandora deprived of all special gifts from gods.

The didactic gist of this famed myth in his ‘Works and Days’ is that a belief in predetermination that we have no control over our life without hope is a delusion, a corollary of fatalism. It is a biological determinism, which must be vanquished, because according to his practical wisdom as a farmer, “Hope could come to fruition, since life pairs good with ill.” This wisdom is viable, since Hesiod as a farmer was a witness to resilient human spirit against unremitting soul. In this regard, Hesiod’s view on hope as an antidote to a malady of heart, giving a flickering force of life its meaning and a sense of purpose that will rekindle reason to continue living in the dark night of the soul relates to Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotheraphy, based on an existential analysis focusing on will to meaning, meaning of life, with freedom of will. Frankl’s aphorism of “what is to give light must endure burning” must have struck the chords of Hesiod and even Thucydides, the Athenian political and military historian.

Thucydides saw hope as an illusory idea of vanity and flattery that weakened man’s will to combat the existential reality. He highlighted the way delusional aspects of hope that generate a kind of hubris with catastrophic aftercome. He saw desire and hope hunting together that led man to choose a divisory lot rather than a realistic approach to life in travail to right the ship in distress. To Thucydides, hope was nothing more than awareness of odds in our favor. That is, you don’t have to think about it,but can fight with every hope of winning. It’s a case of the less you think about, the more you achieve, which was also addressed by Frankl. We are destined to live purposefully and meaningfully as a result of responding genuinely to life’s challenges. And hope is a handmaid to a sense of purpose in life.

The ancient and modern are all united in Theory of Hope because it helps us look at our fate not at its face value but at its meaning. Hence the Latin phrase “Amore fati” chips in. We are challenged to change ourselves to continue living by choosing a right attitude toward life. Nietzsche sums it up brilliantly as thus: “Those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how.” And let us not forget what President Theodore Roosevelt advised us: “When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”