Don Bigote: Chapter 2

Don Bigote: Chapter 2

(Continued from Chapter 1.)

Don and Dan Take a Flight

Next Monday, as usual, I walk in Bigote’s front door. Also as usual, I’m hungover. I’m wearing sunglasses and everything is still too bright, it’s a quiet morning but the birds chirping nearby are deafening. My stomach feels like it’s full of acidic foam, and I have a crappy taste in my mouth that won’t go away no matter how much water I drink or how many times I spit, and every once in a while something shifts uncomfortably in my intestines. And do I regret a thing?

Bigote’s place is even messier than usual. A book is splayed open on the floor, right in front of the door, so I accidentally kick it as I walked in.

“Fuck!” I say, bending down over my stubbed toe. “Fuck, shit, bitch!”

I was wearing flip flops, and the book was one of those big hard-cover tombstone books that nobody reads, so my toe hurt. A lot.

“Fucking shit,” I say, as I flip the offending book to see its title. It’s called The Decline of the West. Of course.

“Dan, is that you?” comes a voice from the kitchen.

“Yes, it’s fucking me. Why don’t you clean up your damn house when you know people are coming over?”

“Sorry, Dan, I can’t quite hear you from out there. Would you mind coming over here? I have something cooking, and the crackling oil is causing quite a ruckus.”

I come into the kitchen. Don Bigote is stooped over a frying pan, spectacles down on his nose, a grease-stained cookbook by his side, surrounded by dirty measuring cups, a ripped open bag of sugar, an empty carton of milk, and of course his mustache thoughtfully standing guard over the whole scene.

“I thought that I would prepare some breakfast for you, in thanks for getting me out of that perilous situation last Friday.”

“Uh, oh yeah, cool.”

“It’s just finished!” he says, and begins scrapping the contents of the frying pan onto some plates nearby. He walks over and puts one in front of me. It’s full of bacon burnt to a crisp and a rubbery fried egg.

“You needed a cookbook for this?” I say.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, forget it,” I say, and take a big bite of the carbon meat.

“Is this in reference to the plan of building a shelter? Because, if so, I quite agree.”

“Huh?”

“You’re quite right, Dan. My original idea was seriously flawed. For one, building a shelter in the United States leaves us too open to detection and attack. We need to distance ourselves some more from the center of the conspiracy. Besides, how could I hope to preserve the treasures of Western culture from here? What a blockhead I am! Clearly, we need to go to Europe—to the motherland, so to speak—if we earnestly wish to gather the fruits of European cultural achievement.”

“Huh? Go to Europe?”

“Yes, Dan, it’s a far better plan. We can simultaneously isolate ourselves (to some extent) from the grasping reaches of our enemies, while putting ourselves in direct contact with the civilization we hope to preserve. It’s perfect!”

“You’re talking about ‘us’ again.”

“Well, of course, you must come with me. As you demonstrated in Home Depot, you are invaluable to me. Without you, I would have succumbed to my own foolish impulses.”

“You’re saying you’re gonna take me to Europe?”

“That is an adequate summary of my proposal.”

“Woah, dude. Where in Europe?”

“Excellent question, my dear Dan Chopin. I have considered all the political entities, both large states and small, and there is one clear best option: Spain. Spain is geopolitically unimportant enough to make it a safe hiding place. It has a great deal of historic depth, possessing some fine Roman ruins, to name just one example. It is the birthplace of some of the most excellent architects, artists, musicians, and writers who have ever lived and breathed. And, most importantly, the Spanish already have experience in fighting the Muslims.”

“Uh yeah?” I say, as I struggle to chew the fried egg, which has the approximate texture of a car tire.

“Yes, indeed. For seven whole centuries, Muslims lived in their country—a long, dark night of oppression!—until the brave Spanish Christians rose up and pushed them out. It’s called the ‘Reconquest’.”

“So, wait,” I say, having finally finished swallowing the egg. “Let me get all this straight. You are offering to pay for me to go with you to Spain?”

“Yes.”

“So we can, like, learn about Europe and all that?”

“That’s it.”

“Hell yeah!” I say. “Let’s get our asses out of Alabama!”

* * *

Four days later, we’re in the car on the way to the airport.

I’m driving—I don’t trust that whack job behind the wheel—and Don Bigote is sitting in the passenger seat, the window rolled down, his mustache fluttering in the wind. Through the ventilators I can smell the burning chemical odor of the old truck’s worn-out transmission. Several cars have honked at us because of the trail of impenetrable black smoke we are leaving behind us. Well, they can go to hell.

I’m feeling a little weird about the whole thing. Bigote is one strange dude, no joke, and I think his relationship with reality is worse than my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Sharona, who once threw my phone in a public toilet. Is this really a good idea? What if he does something equally crazy as he did in Home Depot and gets us thrown into Spanish jail? Well, Spanish jail doesn’t sound so bad. I read online somewhere that they’re co-ed.

My dad was totally against the idea.

“What?! Go to Europe with the Colonel? That’s totally insane!”

“But, dear,” mom said. “It’s just for a few months, and maybe it can be really good for him.”

“I’m getting paid,” I said.

“Yeah, but have you seen that guy? He’s a crank, a loony, a crackpot. What’s he going to do in a foreign country? Does he even speak Spanish?”

“There’s Google translate, dad.”

“Oh, honey,” mom said to dad. “I think this is a great opportunity! Danny can travel, get some work experience. And, after all, Bigote isn’t all that bad. He’s a bit of a hippie, sure, and eccentric, but I don’t think he’s at all dangerous.”

“I don’t feel good about this at all,” dad said. “Danny, listen. If anything goes wrong, just get on a plane and fly home. Don’t worry about the money.”

That’s roughly how the conversation went. So yeah, I suppose I have an escape option if worse comes to worse.

I see the sign for the airport, and take the exit.

“Where should I park?” I say.

“Oh, just over there.”

“But the sign says 72 Hours Maximum. Isn’t there a long-term parking or something?”

“Oh, Dan. What’s it matter? I’m never coming back!”

“What?!”

“Well, maybe some day, far in the future, after the great Cataclysm.”

“I don’t remember you telling me this.”

“No need to worry, Dan, we can just leave this old thing anywhere.”

“You’re the boss,” I say, and pull into a spot.

We get out and begin getting our bags. It isn’t much. I have a duffle bag and a backpack, and Bigote a brown leather briefcase and one of those rolling suitecases. We shut the doors and lock the car.

“Goodbye, old friend,” says Bigot, tenderly touching his shitty pickup truck. “You’ve been good to me.”

And we turn and walk through the parking lot towards the terminal.

“You know, Dan,” Don says, “apart from being a necessary means of transportation, this voyage also provides us an excellent opportunity to investigate air travel, one of the West’s most triumphant achievements.”

“Ever flown before?” I say.

“Actually, no. This will be my first aerial experience, and I must say that I am tremendously excited. The only thing which prevents me from being positively jubilant on this occasion is the unfortunate, but inescapable, global conspiracy.”

“Well, we’ll get away from that soon enough,” I say.

“Ah, don’t be so sure, Dan, don’t be so sure. The conspiracy reaches everywhere. Even this whole business of tickets, passports, visas, security—all this tyrannical nonsense!—it’s just a way for the conspiracy to control our movements, and by doing so, our minds.”

“I thought it was because of 9/11 and stuff like that?”

“Dan, sometimes your ignorance pains me. 9/11 is connected to this, yes, but of course you must realize it was a false-flag operation.”

“A what flag?”

“You see, it is true that the Muslims were behind it, as everyone already believes. But what is not true is that it was the work of a relatively small band of Muslims, without the government’s notice. You see, the Muslims are the government now. They tricked some poor fools into hijacking those planes, in order to distract the populace, to scare us, allowing the executive branch to expand its power, and the security state to extend its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. Just like we find here!”

Bigote gestures grandly at the airport.

“So, you’re saying that Muslims, who own the government, destroyed the Twin Towers in order to expand the power of the government, and then blamed Muslims?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I just hope they don’t do it to our flight,” I say. “Alright, let’s double check. Do you have your passport?”

“Right here,” Bigote says, taking out a blue booklet and handing it to me.

“Good.”

“Well done, isn’t it?” Bigote says, winking at me.

“Huh?”

“Pretty convincing, eh?”

“Convincing?” I say, blinking in disbelief. “Don, is this a fake?”

“Why, of course it is. I am traveling under a fake name, so I can’t use a real passport.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Don’t worry, Dan, I followed an instructional video. They said it’s guaranteed.”

I flipped through the pages, and immediately noticed that the edges were coming apart, like the whole thing was held together by Elmer’s glue.

“You better not get us arrested,” I say.

“Dan, have some faith in me. We only need this to get into Spain. Once there, I’ll make another one.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, because I’m going to need to forge a visa, of course.”

“Forge a visa?”

“And you too.”

“Why?!”

“Dan, I feel like I have to spell everything out for you. On a tourist visa, you can only stay for 90 days, which is of course not nearly enough time. And I can’t exactly obtain a working visa or a residency visa—for the aforementioned problem that I am traveling under an assumed name. Satisfied?”

“Oh, God, I’m going to jail, I’m going to Guantanamo Bay!”

“That’s another false flag, I’m afraid,” says Bigote.

* * *

We check in successfully—the woman at the front desk looks a little too long at Bigote’s passport, but finally lets us go—and now we’re on the line to security.

I am sweating like a pig already. Fuck, I am such an idiot! Dad was right, I should never have tried to take a trip with this nut. Look at him: bobbing his head up and down like he’s brain-dead, walking like he’s got a stick up his ass, with those stupid thin glasses on the tip of his nose—does he even need glasses?—and that ridiculous mustache. Oh God, why doesn’t he trim that thing? His mustache makes him look even more suspicious!

I look ahead to the security guards. Oh no, they’re ethnic! Bigote is going to think they’re Muslims or Mexicans or something. Fuck my life!

“All liquids must be put into a sealed plastic bag,” says one of the guards in a mechanical monotone, “and separated from your luggage. Please take your laptops out of your bags and out of their cases, and put them into a separate tray. All cell phones, keys, jackets, belts, shoes, and metal objects need to go into a bin and through the machine.”

The people ahead of us are all doing that awkward scramble where they unpack half their luggage and get half-undressed, only to be waved through the machine to the other side, where half of them are stopped anyways to have their bags searched or their bodies waved with the metal wand, or something.

“Okay, so, just like we practiced, okay?” I whisper to Bigote.

“Of course, Dan. No need to worry. I have done thorough research.”

“Ok, well, just stay quiet.”

We get to the conveyor belt thing and begin doing the undressing dance. I put my little duffle bag on the conveyor belt, and Bigote puts his stuff on. Soon I’m being waved through the metal detector, which thankfully doesn’t beep. I look behind me, and see that Bigote is fumbling with his belt, which is really difficult to take off because wearing a giant brass belt-buckle shaped like the state of Texas. Jesus…

I turn back and look for my bag. Some bald security guard, wearing white latex gloves, is standing over it.

“Sir, is this your bag?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Okay, I’m just going to do a quick chemical test.”

“A what?”

“Wait right here, sir.”

He pulls out a little white cloth thing and begins whipping it all over my bag. He goes over to a machine and puts the cloth inside. He looks down at it, and frowns.

“Sir, would you mind if I searched your bag?”

“Um, kinda.”

“Sir, the machine gave me a positive reading for marijuana, so I have to perform a search in order to let you through.”

“You can detect weed? No way!”

He quickly unzips the bag and begins ruffling through my stuff. Shit, shit, shit. Try not to look nervous. Ah, but it’s too late! I’m fucked! My weed is in an old pencil case in one of the side-pockets…

SIR, STOP WHERE YOU ARE NOW AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”

Someone behind me shouts this at the top of his voice. There is a confusion of screams and shouts, as people around me start running away in all directions. The cop searching my luggage immediately drops what he’s doing, jumps over the conveyor belt, and pulls out his gun.

I look and see Don Bigote standing in the metal detector, his hands on his head, which makes it easy to see his old revolver strapped to his hip. Of course.

He’s surrounded by about five security guards, all of them with their pistols pointed at him. One is radioing for backup.

“Sir, I need you to lie down on the floor, slowly, without moving your hands. Alright?”

“But I have an open carry license!” Bigote says.

“Sir, lie down now or we will have to shoot.”

“It’s my constitutional right!”

SIR, GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!”

“Get the fuck down, Bigote!” I yell at him. “Get your mustachioed ass down!”

Several tense moments pass. Bigote appears torn. A part of him seems to be considering having a shootout. But finally, deciding that he’s outgunned, he follows the cop’s instructions and lays down on the floor. One of the guards approaches carefully and takes the revolver out of his holster. The gun removed, all the guards close in, pinning him on the floor while they put him in handcuffs.

While they’re all busy, I decide that it’s the best time to skedaddle. But just as I’m about to walk off, I hear Bigote say:

“Dan, don’t wait for me!”

The idiot!

“Hey, are you with this guy?” one of the guards says, as he grabs my shoulder and spins me around.

“Uh, him? No…”

“I’m afraid you have to come with us, sir.”

“Oh no!” Bigote shouts, as he’s being dragged off. “Dan, not you too! The monsters!”

Next thing I know, I’m in handcuffs, too, being led off to God knows where. Great.

* * *

This is a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, wake up. Oh man, I should have went to the bathroom before this. Beer and burritos was a terrible idea for breakfast.

I’m sitting in one of those sterile interrogation rooms, like you see on television, except it’s real. The walls are plain white, and there’s a mirror on one side. And I just know a bunch of cops are on the other side, watching us through the glass, probably making fun of Bigote’s mustache. Better not be saying anything about me.

Bigote is right next to me. We’re both seated in these awful metal chairs, our hands handcuffed behind our backs, with an equally metallic table in front of us. Really, it’s just like TV, except on TV they usually separate the terrorist suspects. Also, on TV the terrorists usually don’t need to take a big, probably smelly dump while they’re being interrogated (as far as we know!).

“Dan, I’m so terri—”

NO TALKING!” cracks a voice on the loudspeakers, interrupting Bigote.

Silence resumes. All I can hear is a ventilator and Bigote’s breathing, which sounds like another ventilator.

Right on cue, a detective enters. He looks the part: big masculine jaw with five o’clock shadow, big buff shoulders underneath a black suit, and all the rest. He closes the door behind him, walks over to the empty seat across from us, and sits down.

“My name is Detective Murky,” he says, his voice all gruff-like, “and I’m here to find out what the hell you were doing with that gun.”

“We’ll never talk!” Bigote shouts, his voice choked with enthusiasm. “Never!”

“Can’t we like, get a lawyer or something?” I say.

“Terrorists don’t get lawyers!” says Murky.

“A lawyer, ha!” Bigote says. “They’re some of the most heinous conspirators!”

“Jesus Christ, Bigote,” I say. “Will you shut the fuck up?”

“Enough playing around!” Murky says, slamming his fist on the table. “Who are you? Muslims extremists?”

“Oh, please,” Bigote says. “Is this your plan? Frame us as Muslims conspirators? We’re not even circumcised!”

“Speak for yourself dude,” I say.

“Dan, let me handle this.”

“Not circumcised?” Murky says. “Who are you, then?”

I hear Bigote inhale slowly.

“I suppose at this point,” Bigote says, “there’s no use in trying to keep a secret.”

“That’s damn right.”

“You see,” Bigote says, “we’re on a mission, a mission to save civilization.”

“Save civilization from what? American tyranny?”

“Don’t be a fool!” Bigote says. “From the international Muslim-Mexican-homosexual-feminist-Marxist-scientific conspiracy!”

Murky’s eyes widen, and he sits up even straighter in his chair.

“Explain,” he says.

“Well, there is no time for details. But suffice to say the conspirators have already penetrated every layer of government, and are now very near their goal: the total collapse of Western civilization. I wouldn’t be surprised if you yourself were an agent.”

“Okay…” says Murky, his eyes narrowing. “What’s your mission, then?”

“You see,” Bigote says. “If my calculations are correct, it’s far too late to prevent the conspiracy from succeeding. But there is still some time—a few years, maybe—to prepare for the inevitable. That’s why I’m trying to go to Spain, to gather up the fruits of Western civilization and preserve them for the scattered bands of survivors who will survive the collapse.”

Murky sits for a few seconds, saying nothing, rubbing his temples with one hand. Meanwhile, the pressure in my intestines is becoming uncontainable. The inevitable happens. A fart begins to escape my insides, seeping out slowly at first, making a whirring whistling sound, but quickly accelerating into a roaring flapping explosion that fills the entire room with its rumbling.

A few seconds of dreadful silence pass—the interval between the explosion’s report and the explosion’s effects—as the sound disappears into an echo, and then into a dreadful memory shared by everyone present. And then, finally, the smell hits.

I detect it first—it’s even worse than usual, a mixture of rotten eggs, vinegar, and old ham that’s gone bad—and then Bigote catches a whiff (I can tell because he starts coughing), and finally it reaches Murky, whose only reaction is to blanch paper white.

“Excuse me,” he says, and quickly leaves the room.

“Dan, that was brilliant,” Bigote says, between coughs. “Excellent diversionary tactic. Now, help me figure out how to slip out of these metallic restaints.”

“You know they can hear and see everything we’re doing, right?”

“That’s just what they want you to think, Dan. Now hurry! There’s not much time.”

Suddenly, the lights go out. Someone has pulled the alarm! The sprinkler’s start drenching us with water, a siren is whirring, a bell is ringing, and red lights are flashing. As if my headache wasn’t bad enough already.

Murky bursts in the door.

“Quick!” he says “Come with me!”

With his left hand he jerks me to my feet, and with his right hand he takes Bigote. Soon we are being pushed into the hallway, around a corner, through a corridor, as people all around us are running left and right, carrying folders, bundles of paper, laptops, and crying babies, trying to protect what they can from the sprinklers.

“Is there a fire?” Bigote says.

“Just shut up and move!” Murky answers.

After what seems like a long time, Murky slams us both against a wall.

“Wait,” he says, as if we have a choice. He gets out a big bunch of keys like janitors always carry, fumbles a bit, finds the right one, and then opens a nearby door.

“Come on!” he says, and grabs us again.

Now we’re outside, somewhere in the airport. He puts us both in the back of one of those little golf cart things that security guards also use, and begins to drive.

“What on earth is going on?” Bigote screams.

“Sorry about the alarm,” Murky yells back as he’s driving. “There wasn’t anyway else to get you guys out of there.”

“What? You pulled it?” I say.

“Not only that, but I disconnected the security footage so they wouldn’t see us escape.”

“This must mean that my worst fears are confirmed,” Bigote says. “He’s an agent of the conspiracy, Danny. We’re being taken to one of their brainwashing facilities where we’re going to be forced to watch gay porn and global warming documentaries until we lose touch with reality.”

“You don’t understand,” Murky says. “I’m helping you escape.”

“Sweet!” I say. “Thanks! Hey, did you also manage to get my weed?”

“Why would you help us?” Bigote says.

“Listen,” Murky says. “I got this job because I wanted to keep my country safe from foreigners. But the more I see what’s going on in the world, the more I think that our own government is on their side! First that scumbag Obama was elected, a secret Muslims who was born in Kenya—that birth-certificate was an obvious forgery!—and then all these Syrian refugees? The whole world has gone crazy!”

“Exactly!” Bigote cries.

“So when you told me what you what you were doing, I thought, ‘Well, here’s a man I got to help’.”

“Oh, rejoice, rejoice!” Bigote says. “Thank heavens for the few remnants of decency in this godforsaken world!”

We arrive in the parking lot, and Murky takes off our handcuffs and lets us go.

“Now get in your car and drive off quick.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” Bigote says, clasping Murky’s hand.

“Don’t mention it,” Murky says. “Now go, fast!”

Bigote and I jump in the pickup truck, drive straight through the parking gate (no time for the fee), and onto the highway, leaving a cloud of black smoke trailing behind us as we speed away towards our next misadventure.

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Cutting Through Spiritual MaterialismCutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not consider how we are going to vomit; we just vomit.

Chögyam Trungpa was a charismatic and controversial figure in the Western popularization of Buddhism. As a teenager in Tibet, Trungpa fled the Chinese in an escape that involved swimming across a river under gunfire, climbing the Himalayas, and running so short of food that he had to eat his leather belt and bag. Eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he founded several schools, and pioneered a secular interpretation of Buddhism, Shambhala Training. You may be surprised to learn that Trungpa, far from being an ascetic monk, also had notorious penchants for bedding his female students and for going on drunken debauches.

My interest in Trungpa was sparked by reading a book on meditation by his disciple, Pema Chödrön, which I thought was excellent. Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa’s most famous book, contains two series of lectures Trungpa gave, in 1970-71, about the pitfalls of the spiritual path and how to overcome them. As such, this series of lectures is largely theoretical rather than practical—how to think about the spiritual path rather than what to do once you’re on it—even if there are practical ramifications.

‘Spiritual materialism’ is Trungpa’s term for the ways that the ego co-opts spirituality for its own benefit. ‘Ego’ is our sense of self. In Buddhist thought, this sense of self is illusory; the self is a process, not a thing. Ego is the mind’s attempt to create an illusion of solidity where none exists. Put another way, ‘ego’ is the mind’s attempt to reject impermanence.

This attempt takes many forms. We modify our environment, manipulating the material world and bringing it under our control, in order to create a perfectly comfortable world that never challenges or disappoints us. We create intellectual systems—positivism, nationalism, Buddhism—that rationalize and explain the world, that define our place in the world and dictate to us rules of action. We also attempt to analyze ourselves: we use literature, psychology, drugs, prayer, and meditation to achieve a sense of self-consciousness, an awareness of who we are. All of these are the ego’s attempts to solidify both itself and its world, to see the universe as a series of defined shapes rather than an endless flux.

This project of solidification can even use spiritual techniques in its own benefit. The goal of meditation is the dissolution of the ego and the absence of struggle. And yet many who embark on the spiritual path see meditation as a battle with the ego, an attempt to break certain habits, to overcome certain mentalities, to free themselves from illusions. If spirituality is seen in such a way—as ‘you’ against ‘something else’—then you will hit a wall; and this wall will only get stronger the harder you push against it. Only when you give up trying to destroy this wall, when you stop struggling, does the wall disappear; for the wall was the product of your own ‘dualistic’ thinking—once again, ‘you’ against ‘something else’—and ceases to exist when you stop trying to destroy it:

“There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of buddhahood.”

It is no use, therefore, to practice acts of extreme asceticism, forceful acts of self-denial. It is no use to try to overcome your own negative qualities—to strive to be good, kind, caring, loving. It is no use to accumulate vast amounts of religious knowledge; nor is it beneficial to accumulate religious titles or honorifics. True spirituality is not a battle, not a quality, not an ultimate analysis, and it is not an accomplishment. All of those things belong to a person, whereas enlightenment contains no sense of me and not-me.

This is my best attempt to summarize the core message of this book. (And please excuse the ponderous style; I’ve been reading Hegel.) Yet I’m not exactly sure how to go about analyzing or evaluating it. Indeed, such criticism seems totally antithetical to the ethos of this book. But I’ll try, nevertheless.

There is an obvious contradiction between Trungpa’s stance on intellectual analysis—as the ego’s vain attempt to solidify its world through intellectual work—and the analysis that he himself undertakes in this book. If all analysis is vain, what makes his any different? To this, I think he would respond that analysis is fine if we take the right attitude towards it—namely, as long as we keep in mind that our analysis is not identical with the reality it attempts to describe, that we can never describe reality perfectly, and that there’s always a chance we are wrong. More succinctly, I think he’d say analysis is fine as long as we don’t take it too seriously. By his own admission, there is no ‘final analysis’ of the human condition; and enlightenment is characterized by the absence of any need to analyze.

Still, there does seem to be the idea in Trungpa’s system that, in attaining this ego-less state, we are experiencing the ‘truth’ of reality, whereas before we were mired in the ‘illusions’ of the ego. In this, you might say that the system is esoteric: true knowledge is the purview of only the truly enlightened. True knowledge, in other words, is not transmissible through speech, but is the result of privileged state which only a few achieve. Bodhisattvas become authorities through their enlightened states, beings who must be listened to because of their special, higher perspectives. Again, I think Trungpa would respond that even the ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are dualistic (they involves the sense of ‘me’ knowing ‘something else’), and thus this idea is not applicable to the enlightened.

Putting all this aside, it’s worth asking whether this ego-less state is even desirable. Could we have science, technology, literature, or love without a sense of self? An ego-less world might involve less suffering; but isn’t there something to be said for suffering? Trungpa describes the ego as a monkey creating various worlds—creating for itself its own heaven and hell, a world of animal desire and human intellect—and moving through these self-created worlds in a vain search for perfect happiness, only to have each of its own worlds collapse in turn. And yet, even if I accepted Trungpa’s premise that this struggle is vain, I still think it’s an open question whether perfect tranquility is preferable to vain struggle.

All reservations notwithstanding, I still thought that this book was an enlightening read. While I may be skeptical about the prospect of enlightenment and ego-death, I do think that meditation, as a method of slowing down, of savoring one’s own mental life, and of learning to accept the world around you, is an extremely useful technique. And as a technique, its end is an experience—or perhaps, better yet, an attitude—and the theory that goes along with meditation does not constitute its substance; rather, theory is just a pedagogical tool to help guide less experienced practitioners. It is in this light, I think, that these lectures should be read.

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Review: The Decline of the West

Review: The Decline of the West

The Decline of the WestThe Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All genuine historical work is philosophy, unless it is mere ant-industry.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of my favorite books, not only because it is written so beautifully, but because of the spectacle of decline—of a great empire slowly and inevitably crumbling. The scene is irresistibly tragic. Like a Macbeth or an Oedipus, the Empire succumbs to itself, brought down by its own efforts at self-expansion. Or perhaps the scene can be better compared to the Fall of Man in Milton’s poem, a grand cosmic undoing, followed by the heroic struggle against the inevitable.

Besides the sublime tragedy of Rome’s decline, it fascinates because it gives us a foreboding of what might happen to us. Indeed, maybe it is already? This would explain all the banality we see on television every day, all the terrible music on the radio. More than decline—a loss of political and economic power—this is decadence: a decay of taste, morals, artistic skill. Decadence seems observable in many historical instances: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines: they all petered out, losing cultural vitality until they disappeared completely. Couldn’t the same thing be happening to us?

Oswald Spengler thought so, and he turned this thought into the basis for an entire philosophy of history. He was not a professional historian, nor an academic of any kind. He worked as a school teacher until his mother’s inheritance allowed him quit his job and to devote all of his time to scholarship. This scholarship was mustered to write an enormous book, whose publication was delayed by World War I. Probably this was very lucky for Spengler, since the pessimism and anguish caused by that war set the mood for his grand theory of cultural decline.

The Decline of the West puts forward a radically unconventional view of history. Spengler divides up world history, not into countries or epochs, but into “Cultures.” There have been only eight: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Meso-American, the Chinese, the Indian, the Classical (Greco-Roman), the Arabian (includes the Byzantine), and the Western (European Culture, beginning around the year 1000). Each of these Cultures he conceives as a super-organism, with its own birth, middle-age, and dotage. These Cultures all age at a similar rate, and go through analogical stages in the process (Napoleon is the Western equivalent to Alexander the Great, for example). Spengler believed that he had delineated these Cultures and traced their basic growth and aging process, thus providing a valid scheme for all future history as well, if any new Culture should arise.

Spengler is a cultural determinist and a cultural relativist. This means that he does not see these Cultures as dependent on the talent of individuals to grow; the individual is a product of the Culture and not the reverse. He also thinks that each of these Cultures creates its own self-contained world of significance, based on its own fundamental ideas. There is no such thing as inter-cultural influence, he thinks, at least not on any deep level. Each of these Cultures conceives the world so differently that they can hardly understand one another, let alone determine one another, even if one Culture can overpower another one in a contest of arms. Their art, their mathematics, their architecture, their experience of nature, their whole mental world is grounded in one specific cultural worldview.

Because Spengler is a determinist, he does not present us with a Gibbonian spectacle of a civilization succumbing to its own faults, struggling against its own decline. For Spengler, everything that happens in history is destiny. People don’t make history; history makes people. Thus, while often classed as a political conservative, it is hard to put any political label on Spengler, or to co-opt his views for any political purpose, since he didn’t think we directed our own history. To be a true Spenglerian is to believe that decline is inevitable: decadence wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” and it can’t be averted.

Much of this book consists of a contrast between what he calls the Apollonian (Greco-Roman) worldview, and the Faustian (Western) worldview. The Apollonian world-picture is based on the idea of definite form and definable shape; the nude statue is its most characteristic art, the delineated human body; its mathematics is all based on geometry, concrete shapes and visible lines. The Faustian picture, by contrast, is possessed by the idea of infinity; we make fugues, roving explorations of musical space; our mathematics is based on the idea of a function, an operation that can create an endless series of numbers. Spengler dwells on this contrast in chapter after chapter, trying to prove his point that Western Culture, far from being a development of Classical Culture, is entirely incompatible with it.

His own Culture, the Western, he traces to around the year 1000, at the commencement of the Romanesque. How or why new a Culture begins, Spengler doesn’t venture to say; but once they do begin, they follow the same definite steps. It was inevitable, he thinks, that the Romanesque transformed into the Gothic, and then eventually flourished into the Baroque, the high point of our Culture, wherein we expressed our deep longing for the infinite in Bach’s fugues and Descartes’s mathematics.

Sometime around the year 1800, the Western Culture entered its late, senescent phase, which Spengler terms ‘Civilization.’ This is the phase that follows cultural growth and flourishing; its onset begins when a Culture has exhausted its fundamental idea and explored its inherent forms. A Civilization is what remains of Culture when it has spent its creative forces: “The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization.”

The ‘decline’ that forms the title of this book is just this transition from Culture to Civilization, wherein major creative work is at an end. Civilization is, rather, the age of Caesarism, the consolidation of political power. It is the age of world cities, major metropolises filled with cosmopolitan urban intellectuals. It is the age of academics rather than geniuses, the Alexandrine Greeks instead of the Golden-Age of Athens. It is, in other words, the period that corresponds with the onset of the Roman Empire, a period of no substantial innovation, but of magnificent stability. The Western Culture, Spengler thought, was entering just this period.

Whereas those who are actuated by a Culture during its creative period feel themselves driven by inevitable impulses, which allow even mediocre artists to create great works, people within a Civilization are creatures of the intellect, not the instinct; and instead of being given creative power and direction by their Culture, they are left to substitute their own subjective tastes and whims for cultural destiny. Instead of, for example, having one overriding epoch in our artistic productions—such as the Gothic, the Baroque, or what have you—we have artistic ‘movements’ or trends—Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism—which, far from being necessary phases in a Culture’s self-expression, are merely intellectual fads with no force behind them.

Spengler’s theory does have the considerable merit of being testable, because he made very specific predictions about what the immediate future held. We had gone through the period of ‘Warring States,’ he thought, in which country fought country and money ruled everything, and were about to enter a period of Caesarism, wherein people would lose faith in the power of self-interested capitalism and follow a charismatic leader. This would also be a period of ‘Second Religiousness,’ a period of faith rather than reason—a period of patriotism, zeal, and peaceful capitulation to the status quo.

Nowadays, one-hundred years later, it seems these predictions were certainly false. For one, he did not foresee the Second World War, but thought the period of internecine warfare was coming to a close. What is more, economic power has grown even more important—far more important than political power, in many ways—and no Caesar has arisen, despite many contenders (including Hitler, during Spengler’s lifetime, of whom Spengler didn’t think highly).

Aside from its breadth, one thing that sets this book apart is its style. Spengler is a remarkable writer. He can be poetic, describing the “flowers at eventide as, one after the other, they close in the setting sun. Strange is the feeling that then presses in upon you—a feeling of enigmatic fear in the presence of this blind dreamlike earth-bound existence.” He can be bitter, biting, and caustic, castigating the blind scholars who couldn’t see the obvious, satirizing the pseudo-sauve intellectuals who populated the cities of his time. He can be lyrical or epigrammatic, and can write ably about art, music, and mathematics.

His most characteristic mode, however, is the oracular: Spengler proclaims, predicts, pronounces. His voice, resonating through the written word, booms as if from a mountaintop. He sweeps the reader up in his swelling prose, an inundation of erudition, a flood that covers the world and brings us, like Noah in his ark, even higher than mountaintops. Perhaps a flood is the most apt metaphor, since Spengler is not only overwhelming in his rhetorical force, but all-encompassing in his world-view. He seems to have thought of everything, considered every subject, drawn his own conclusions about every fact; no detail escapes him, no conventionality remains to be overturned by his roving mind. The experience can be intoxicating as he draws you into his own perspective, with everything you thought you knew now blurry and swirling.

Spengler is so knowledgeable that, at times, he can sound like some higher power declaiming from above. But he was a man, after all, and his erudition was limited. He was most certainly an expert on music, mathematics, and the arts, and writes with keen insight in each of these subjects. But in politics, economics, religion, and especially science, he is less impressive. He completely fails to understand Darwin’s theory, for example, and he thought that physics was already complete and there would be no more great geniuses (and this, in one of the greatest epochs of physics!). He doesn’t even mention Einstein. Spengler also thought that our scientific theories were culturally determined and culturally bound; the Western conception of nature, for example, would have no validity for the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese from learning Newton’s theories).

His grand theory, though undeniably fascinating, is also impossible to accept. What is the nature of a Culture? Why do they arise, why are they self-contained, why do they follow the same life-course? Why would one single idea determine every single cultural production—from mathematics to music, from architecture to physics—in a Culture from birth to death? All these seem like fundamental questions, and yet they are not satisfactorily addressed—nor do I see how they could be.

By insisting on the Culture as the unit of history, Spengler seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. Too narrow, because he does not allow for the possibility that these Cultures can influence one another; while it seems obvious to me that, yes, there was influence from the Classical to the Western, as well as from the Classical to the so-called ‘Magian’ (his term for the Arabian Culture), and from the Magian to the Western, and so on. And too broad, because within any given Culture there are not only different ages but different areas. Is the cultural difference between Spain and England ultimately superficial, but between the Renaissance and Classical Greece unbridgeable? Really, the more you think about Spengler’s claims, the less credible they seem. After all, if Spengler were right, how could he, a Western intellectual living in the Civilization phase of Western Culture, delineate the fundamental ideas of other Cultures and produce what he regarded as a major intellectual achievement?

I am certainly not saying that this book is intellectually valueless. By comparison, Walter Pater had this to say about aesthetic theories: “Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.”

This seems equally true with regard to Spengler’s universal formula for history. Although I think his theory is untenable, this book is nevertheless filled to the brim with suggestive and penetrating observations, especially about art, architecture, music, and mathematics. Spengler may be a failed prophet, but he was an excellent critic, capable of making the most astonishing comparisons between arts of different eras and epochs.

Even if we reject Spengler’s proposed theory, we may still savor the grand vision required to see all of human history as a whole, to scan one’s eye over the past and present of humankind, in all its forms and phases, and to form conjectures as to its destiny. And Spengler was undeniably original in his inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Meso-American Cultures as of equal importance as Western history; indeed, it is at least in part to Spengler that we owe our notion of world-history. Rich in ideas, set forth in ringing prose, invigorating in its novelty, breathtaking in its scope—here we have a true classic, yet another example of a book whose enormous originality outweighs every conventional defect we can detect in it.

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Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

“You know what? Fuck beauty pageants. Life is one beauty pageant after another. School, then college, then work… Fuck that.”

(Cover image taken from the trailer.)

I was 15 when Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006. My family and I went to see it in theaters, and we liked it enough to buy the DVD. It was one of the few “artsy” movies that I liked at that age. For the most part, I was happy to watch silly comedies and dumb action movies; Little Miss Sunshine is neither, and yet I watched it consistently and enjoyed it, although I could hardly say why. I’ve had the pleasure to encounter the film again (we played it in English class the week before spring break), and realized, upon re-watching it, that Little Miss Sunshine is a far deeper movie that I could have guessed.

The premise is simple: An adorable girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), wins a local beauty contest (she was runner-up, but the first-place winner was disqualified for taking diet pills), which qualifies her to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pangent—her dream come true.

Meanwhile, Olive’s family is in disarray. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who coaches her, is a heroine addict who’s been kicked out of his nursing home. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is trying to market his nine-step program for turning “losers” into “winners”. Her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is the only person who has a job, and she works desperately to support the family while she gradually loses patience with her husband’s scheme. Olive’s older brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a moody adolescent who has taken a vow of silence until he goes to the Air Force Academy. And Olive’s uncle, Frank (Steve Carrell), was a leading Proust scholar until he was fired for inappropriate behavior; the film opens with him sitting in a hospital room, after he tried to kill himself.

The task is simple: get Olive to California to compete in the pageant. But circumstances come together—Richard isn’t working so they’re short of money, Grandpa is Olive’s coach so he has to go, Sheryl can’t drive a stick shift, Frank can’t be left by himself since he is suicidal, Dwayne is only fifteen so he can’t stay home alone either—which force the family to pile in an old Volkswagen bus, all together, mostly against their will, to drive all the way there. Thus the adventure begins, a classic road trip movie.

On the surface, there is much to commend the movie. The acting is generally excellent, especially Toni Collette’s performance as the harried and impatient mother. The long shots of the Volkswagen bus driving through the country’s innards are pure Americana. There are some great comedic moments (Alan Arkin is responsible for most of them, even when he’s dead). I especially love DeVotchka’s soundtrack to the movie—at times kitch, at times bubbly, and tender when it needs to me, with a hypnotic preponderance of the root chord to the mediant, an extremely weak harmonic contrast that sounds like a bittersweet sigh.

What I realize now is how thematically tight this movie is, despite the superficially meandering narrative. Little Miss Sunshine is, at bottom, an exploration of what it means to be a winner and a loser. Those two words come up again and again in the movie, in large part thanks to Richard’s nine-step program; and each character interacts with these two poles of success in different ways.

Specifically, each character is defined by what they value in life, what it means to be a “winner” (and, consequently, a “loser”). For Olive, it means winning the beauty pageant; for Dwayne, flight school; for Richard, getting a publishing deal; for grandpa, hedonistic pleasure; for Sheryl, having a normal, happy family; and for Frank, academic prestige. And during the course of the movie, each one of them has to confront the implosion of their dream. Olive is no beauty queen, Dwayne is color-blind, Richard doesn’t get his deal, Sheryl faces the prospect of divorce, grandpa’s hedonism gets himself killed, and Frank witnesses his rival lauded and himself forgotten.

All of them, in other words, face becoming that most dreaded of words, a “loser.” They all have to confront life stripped of their definition of success. This is terrifying, because it means giving up their definition of themselves. Who is Dwayne without flight school? Who is Frank without his professorship? A nobody? A loser?

All of the characters face this moment, a moment of despair, when their dreams are stripped from them. They face this moment of having their own sense of themselves collapse, and their first reaction is to categorize themselves as a failure. Frank is the most extreme case of this, having attempted suicide, but to a greater or lesser extent this happens to everyone, even Olive, who cries in the hotel the night before the pageant because she’s afraid that if she loses her father won’t love her.

This question—”What does it mean to be a loser?”—is brought up explicitly several times. Grandpa says that a loser is “someone who’s so afraid of losing he doesn’t even try.” Richard says that the difference between winners and losers is that “losers don’t give up.” Frank says that Proust was a “total loser,” and yet points out that Proust’s suffering helped him write. Yet all of these are, at best, partial answers. The film’s final message is this: A loser is somebody who cares whether people think he’s a loser.

This is why the film’s climax, when the family gets up and dances to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” is so joyfully cathartic. For it is at that moment when each character finally stops caring about seeming successful, normal, smart, beautiful, cool, or anything else; they stop caring about what the audience thinks. They can be seen as losers and still be happy, which is exactly what it means to be a winner.

Perhaps the most nefarious part of the fear of being seen as a “loser” is that is separates us from one another. All notions of winner and loser require some sort of evaluative framework—how we’re determining success. Each one of these frameworks creates a pecking order, people who are higher up or lower down the hierarchy, and it naturally creates a lot of anxiety around losing status. What’s more, as we can see from just this family, the world is full of many different conflicting value frameworks: academia, business, family, the military, hedonistic pleasure. Even if we’re a winner in one world we’re inevitably a loser in many other worlds. And since we’re inevitably a loser, we will be avoided and shunned by people anxious to lose status in their world.

Giving up your fear of being seen as a loser allows people to engage one another as equals, without status anxiety, without either deference or scorn. In other words, you need to give up this idea of being a loser to have simple, healthy relationships with others.

This notion is symbolized in the movie’s Volkswagen bus. Not long into their voyage, the transmission breaks. From then on, to get it started, everyone is needed: the van doesn’t move unless the whole family is pushing together. Later on, the horn breaks too, constantly producing a squawking wail, drawing every passerby’s attention to the van.

In the same way, the family begins as a fractured group of people concerned with winning and losing. Eventually, each of them realize that their little value systems are silly, and they can connect with each other simply as people. (Frank ironically notes that he’s the “pre-eminent Proust scholar in the US” every time they push the van, underscoring how totally irrelevant his old value-system is.) Soon enough, they discard their old notions of winning and losing so completely that they can be publically goofy, as symbolized by the car’s persistent horn. (I’m not normally a fan of symbolic analysis like this, but it seems very obvious in this case.)

All this brings me, inevitably, to Donald Trump. “Winner” and “loser” are two of the president’s favorite words. Calling someone a loser is, for him, the ultimate insult. In Donald’s world, to win is to have value, to lose to be worthless. This mentality is perfectly demonstrated by Trump’s previous ownership of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. These pageants are such painfully obvious demonstrations of the way we gleefully use superficial standards to rank one another that they didn’t need someone like Trump to discredit them. The beauty pageant becomes one of the dominant symbols of this film, the archetype of every evaluative framework. And the point of the film is that it is far better to get yourself banned from beauty contests than to win them.

So it strikes me, now, that Little Miss Sunshine has only grown more relevant since its release. It both anticipates, analyzes, and rejects the entire worldview of the current president, showing how the beauty pageant, winner/loser view of life just leads to isolation and despair. And to help fight this sort of thinking, it seems we all need to get over our fear of being losers, limber up, let loose, and dance like a bunch of wild fools in public.

Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

Crítica: La guerra civil española, por Anthony Beevor

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Esto es una traducción de un post en inglés.)

Como demostró la guerra civil española, la primera baja de la guerra no es la verdad, sino la fuente de la que procede: la consciencia y la integridad del individuo.

Hace unos meses, esperando curar mi ignorancia total de la guerra civil española, comencé a buscar un libro. Había escuchado diversas opiniones sobre la famosa historia por Hugh Thomas, y en todo caso su extensión no me pareció ideal como introducción. Mi compañero de trabajo, un historiador militar, me recomendó Ángel Viñas; pero sus libros son largos igualmente, y además solo están disponibles en español—español difícil. Sin embargo, quería practicar de leer español, y no deseaba un “introducción breve” o algo así. La versión de Anthony Beevor tiene la longitud correcta; y su dificultad, cuando es traducido al español, es ideal: desafiante pero factible.

Anthony Beevor es un historiador militar; y su libro es principalmente una historia de ejércitos y batallas. Las fuerzas que desestabilizaron el gobierno y crearon tanta tensión en el país están resumidas rápidamente; y las repercusiones —su legado, sus efectos persistentes en la vida política española, su significado más amplio en la historia del siglo veinte— todo esto está mencionado, pero no analizado. Como cualquier historiador, Beevor necesita poner límites a su material. Se centra en la península ibérica en los años entre 1936-39.

Beevor es un escritor excelente. Sus párrafos son minas de información; él resume, ofrece estadísticas y da ejemplos memorables. Inspecciona el campo de batalla como un observador aéreo; informa sobre luchas de poder como periodista investigador. No deja que su material le agobie, pero condesa eventos complicados hasta formar frases elegantes. Su enfoque está más en eventos a escala grande que en historias individuales. La narración pausa con poco frecuencia para analizar el carácter de una persona concreta, o para contar un anécdota, pero mantiene la perspectiva de un general observando sus tropas.

A pesar de su habilidad de escribir, Beevor no puede cambiar el hecho que esta guerra es complicada. Tantos actores están involucrados—comunistas, anarquistas, republicanos, sindicalistas, conservadores, falangistas, carlistas, monarquistas, vascos, catalanes, alemanes, italianos, soviéticos, estadounidenses, británicos, franceses—que es imposible presentar la guerra como una historia sencilla. Beevor divide la materia en 38 capítulos cortos, cada uno sobre un aspecto, en un esfuerzo representar justamente la complejidad del conflicto sin agobiar el lector. Es una estrategia efectiva, pero llega con el inconveniente de una fragmentación desagradable.

Sin embargo, este libro hace lo que he esperado haría: ofrecer un resumen del conflicto, sus causas inmediatas, sus actores principales y el curso de la guerra. Dicho esto, tengo que admitir que la historia militar del conflicto—las batallas, las estrategias, las armas—es solo de interés temporal.

Lo que quiero saber es—¿Por qué? ¿Por qué un país decidió desgarrarse? ¿Por qué ciudadanos, vecinos, familiares decidieron matarse? ¿Por qué radicalismo triunfó en la derecha y la izquierda? ¿Por qué una democracia fracasó y un régimen represivo tomó el poder? Estas son grandes preguntas, que este libro no dirigirse. Para entender el trasfondo histórico y la inestabilidad que siguió a la guerra, quiero leer el libro de Gerald Brenan, El laberinto español.

Mientras tanto, me han dejando con una imagen de un derrumbe moral. Al principio del golpe, habían asesinatos en masa de curas, obispos, monjas en los cientos y los miles; y la Iglesia Español, por su parte, fue cómplice con frecuencia en represión y tiranía. Se cometieron masacres y ejecuciones en los dos lados. Por ejemplo, cuando los republicanos estaban al mando de Málaga, 1.005 personas fueron fusiladas. En la primera semana después de la conquista de los nacionalistas, fusilaron más de 3.000 personas; y dentro de 1944, más de 16.000 fueron ejecutados.

En el lado republicano, decisiones militares importantes fueron tomados por razones políticas; la propaganda política fue tan penetrante que los dirigentes se sentían ciegamente seguros que iban a ganar, y actuaron para justificar sus presuntuosas predicciones. Llevaron a cabo ofensivos inútiles—en Segovia, Teruel y el Ebro—costaron miles de vidas y perdieron los recursos de la República, para capturar lugares de ninguna importancia estratégica. Confiando ciegamente en la alta moral, los anarquistas se negaron a regular la economía y disciplinar sus tropas, dando una “una justificación ideológica de la ineficacia.” Eventualmente, facciones estalinistas se apoderaron el poder en el lado “republicano,” suprimiendo violentamente otros partidos.

Voluntarios valientes llegaron a España desde muchos países, la mayoría para luchar contra los fascistas; sin embargo, su entusiasmo fue malgastado por dirigentes ineptos. Al tiempo de todo eso, Francia, Inglaterra, y Estados Unidos manteniendo una póliza oficial de “no intervención,” mientras la Italia fascista, la Alemania nazi y la Rusia soviética enviaron tropas y armas a España, probando estrategias y equipo que iban a usar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Al final, Franco ganó. Los perdedores tenían pocas opciones. Muchos escaparon a Francia, en donde ellos estaban encarcelados en campos de concentración, en que comían lo insuficiente, vivían en condiciones antihigiénicas, en temperaturas bajo cero. En Saint-Cyprien, morían entre 50 y 100 presos cada día, y los otros campos no fueron mucho mejor. Después de una indignidad inicial, la prensa francesa olvidó la situación de los refugios españoles. Aquellos que se quedaron en España encontraron un gulag de encarcelamiento, trabajo forzado, y muerte. Unos escaparon a las colinas, y otros lucharon en bandas de guerrillas; pero normalmente no duraron mucho. Y si los estalinistas hubieran ganado la guerra, no está claro que las condiciones habrían sido mejores.

Una cosa que me llamó la atención con frecuencia era la diferencia en eficacia entre los nacionalistas y los republicanos. Mientras Franco reguló bien su economía durante la guerra y tomó decisiones militares eficaces, el lado republicano fue inundado por decenas de monedas, preocupado por formar sindicatos, y se preparando para la revolución inminente. El mismo día en que Málaga cayó, cuando tantas personas fueron ejecutadas, en Barcelona el gobierno estaba preocupado por la colectivización de las vacas.

Esto mostró una característica persistente en la derecha y la izquierda. La igualdad y la autoridad son dos valores conflictivos; y la mayoría de gobiernos intenta encontrar un equilibrio entre ellos. Cuando la derecha se convierte en extrema, prefiere la autoridad sobre la igualdad; y cuando la izquierda se convierte en extreme, la igualdad es una obsesión. De este modo, observamos el ejército se organizaron bajo del mando de Franco, mientras los republicanos dividieron en facciones luchando entre ellos, más centrado en sus esquemas utópicas que ganar la guerra.

La igualdad sin la autoridad crea justicia sin poder. La autoridad sin la igualdad, poder sin justicia. El primero es preferable moralmente y totalmente inadecuado en sus medios; y el segundo usa medios eficaces para cumplir objetivos injustos. En la práctica, esto significa que, en competición directa, la derecha extrema va a ganar, por los menos a corto plazo; sin embargo, a largo plazo, su énfasis en autoridad, obediencia y disciplina crea sociedades injustas y pueblos infelices. La izquierda extrema, por su parte, después de colapsar en facciones peleando, a veces revierte a la forma autoritaria, mientras un partido se convierte en el más poderoso y pierde su paciencia con discutir (algo que ocurre rápidamente en un crisis).

Un camino en el medio es necesario para navegar entre estos valores. ¿Pero cuál es el equilibro correcto? Supongo que esta es una de las preguntas más viejas de los seres humanos. En todo caso, mientras dejo el libro, me quedo una oscura imagen con muy pocos áreas iluminadas.

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Review: Pure Comedy

Review: Pure Comedy

Rating: A

Another white guy in two thousand seventeen / Who takes himself so goddam seriously.”

Like nearly all the music I like, this album was introduced to me by my dad. He sent me the recent New York Times article about Father John Misty’s new album.

I hadn’t been listening to much music, and expected very little—especially from a guy called Father John Misty. (His real name is Joshua Tillman.) But by the first lines of the opening number, I was entranced: “The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips.” In short, this is the best album I’ve heard in a long while. So here I am, writing my first album review, since apparently I can’t appreciate anything without rating and analyzing it anymore.

Tillman’s music is striking for the discordance between his dark, sarcastic, and at times apocalyptic lyrics, and his lighthearted musical sensibilities. He is, of course, not the first artist to play with the juxtaposition of lyrical and musical style; Randy Newman is an obvious comparison. Yet Tillman does this not only for comedic effects, but because it allows him to examine the themes that pervade his music: disorientation, everyday despair, the nefariousness of the normal. For Pure Comedy is a true concept album, and its message is arguably more important than its melodies.

This is not to say his melodies aren’t lovely. Tillman has a knack for writing tunes that sound “classic”—many of them could have been written anytime between the 1960s and the present day—while not being derivative or gimmicky. Instrumentally, he mostly sticks with what you can find in any bar band: horns, piano, guitar, drums, backing singers. He has enough harmonic sophistication to avoid dullness, while keeping his tunes singable and straightforward. As a vocalist he is also impressive: a strong and soulful baritone, capable of a dulcet falsetto, which he uses to good effect. His time in Fleet Foxes does seem to have left its mark, most noticeably in his penchant for using the wordless “Oohhh” as a chorus.

While musically gifted, Tillman’s real talent, I think, is as a lyricist. His lyrics are uniformally well-crafted—witty, aphoristic, memorable, and hard-hitting. He has a talent for epigram: “The only thing that makes them feel alive is the struggle to survive. But the only thing they request is something to numb the pain with.” His lyrical power does not come from absurd imagery or fantastic wordplay, but from the force with which he hammers his main themes. There is little oblique in Tillman; for all his hipster cleverness, he does not mince words: “They’re just like the ones before, with their standards lower, another concert goer will pay you to believe.”

One of the major themes in this album is religion. Tillman, who was raised in a profoundly religious family, is nowadays nearly as caustically atheistic as Richard Dawkins: “And how’s this for irony? Their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs that they never ever have to leave.” And yet while Dawkins is so often petulant and conceited on this subject, Tillman manages to escape the unpleasantness of sophomoric arrogance by turning his sarcasm upon everything else in sight: atheism, music, pop culture, consumerism, hipsterdom, intellectualism, the avant garde, technology, and himself: “One side says ‘Ya’ll go to hell.’ The other says ‘If I believed in God I’d send you there.’”

The most persistent feeling that this album instills is a profound and overwhelming disgust with the modern world: “Some dream of a world written in lines of code… Some envision a state governed by laws of business.” In this I am reminded most strongly of George Grosz’s paintings of life in Berlin in the 1920s: fat, stupid, pig-faced caricatures of the German middle class marching through city streets, the brutal thoughtlessness of modern life, the omnipresence of newspapers filled with malevolent lies and irrelevancies, and the constant need of diversions—drink, smoke, gambling, war—to make life tolerable.

Tillman approaches this feeling very nearly in his music video of the title track, “Pure Comedy.” The video alternates between footage taken from news programs, documentaries, YouTube videos, and other found sources, interspersed with very Groszian drawings, by Matthew Daniel Siskin, of demon-toothed and overweight cretins dancing on a dying earth.

I admit that I can’t watch this video without an overpowering feeling of horror. Clips of newscasters reading nonsense from teleprompters, a man eating mass-produced pretzels and filling up his car with gas—cute animal videos, internet memes, infomercials, televangelists, product reviews, sports matches, natural disasters, and of course the revolting face of the current president—all this combines to produce a terrifying sense of the banal. All of these are things we spend so many hours consuming; they form the very fabric of modern life. And yet how meaningless, pointless, totally bereft of intelligence they are.

But if Tillman’s point was just this, a disgust with the modern world, he would be little more than a puerile complainer (as I am). His album has a positive thrust, too, and ironically enough it is religious in its simplicity. For Tillman, the main culprit of the world’s ugliness is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of pain, fear of suffering, fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of losing, fear of each other. We elect tough-talking rulers to make us feel secure from aliens, we invent gods and religions to make the chaos of reality seem organized, we spend our lives plugged into technological hubs where we can experience reality at a distance, polished, cleaned, and most of all, safe.

The antidote to this fear, Tillman thinks, is empathy. It is a message summed up long ago by E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” Or, in Tillman’s words, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.” Nationalism, religious bigotry, pop culture, entertainment—all of these are things that divide us, and they do so by preying on our fears: of foreigners, of infidels, of being uncool, of discomfort, of missing out. The comedy—the purest comedy, as Tillman sees—is that, by dividing ourselves this way, we create the very things we fear, and deprive ourselves of our most precious resource: each other.

Beneath all the garbage of our daily discourse are people—lonely, scared, starving, insecure—and these people, all of us, have found themselves in a universe seemingly indifferent to their environment: “this bright blue marble orbited by trash … this godless rock that refuses to die.” This is the basic reality. And yet we do all we can to cover up this basic reality, inventing a hundred ways to turn our eyes from it—virtual reality, highbrow art, lowbrow art, sports, TV, and yes, music—a hundred excuses to deny our basic identity with other people, and a hundred ideologies to pretend that reality is somehow other than it so manifestly is: “Just waiting for the part where they start to believe they’re at the center of everything, and some all-powerful being endows this horrorshow with meaning.”

Even so, if this album were just a sort of secular soul-music, a gospel for the godless, it would probably be intolerably preachy. Tillman escapes this pitfall (partially, at least) with his 13-minute long “Leaving LA,” the centerpiece of the album. Musically, it is bare: featuring just Tillman slowly strumming a few basic chords and singing a simple tune. There is no chorus, and no bridge. A gorgeous string arrangement—both haunting and tender—is the only thing that saves the song from musical monotony.

Lyrically, however, “Leaving LA” is masterful: “Some ten-verse chorus-less diatribe” in which Tillman turns his own sardonic wit upon himself. He imagines himself as an aging folk-rock star, disparaging younger groups; in his fantasy future he is tremendously successful, a “national treasure,” and yet still a phony: “Closing the gap between the mask and me.” He speaks of his insecurity: “Until I figured, if I’m here I just might conceal my lack of skill here in the spotlight.” He describes himself as “Merely a minor fascination to manic virginal lust and college dudes,” and then predicts his fans will “jump ship” after hearing this song.

This self-deprecation, and self-awareness, is probably the album’s saving grace, what prevents Tillman from seeming like a curbside apocalyptic preacher. Since one of Tillman’s biggest targets is the entertainment industry—even entertainment as a concept, which he dedicates a whole song to attacking—how can he, a songwriter and musician, do his job in good conscience? As an artist, what can he do? Can music shock its hearers into wakefulness? And, by extension, can we listen to his music in good conscience without thinking about what he’s saying?

His answer is that he, and us, are all to an extent complicit in all of the things we like to deprecate. We are all participating in this universal banality. But how can we stop? Self-deprecation seems like a good first step, at least. And in that spirit, I suppose I should end with Tillman’s “Ballad of a Dying Man,” a song which perfectly encapsulates all the self-appointed cultural critics, the snobby know-it-alls, and the internet gurus: including me.

Review: The Battle for Spain

Review: The Battle for Spain

La guerra civil españolaLa guerra civil española by Antony Beevor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the Spanish Civil War proved, the first casualty of war is not truth, but its source: the conscience and integrity of the individual.

A few months ago, hoping to cure my total ignorance of the Spanish Civil War, I set about trying to find a book. I had heard mixed opinions about Hugh Thomas’s famous history, and in any case its size didn’t seem ideally suited as an introduction. My coworker, a military historian, suggested Angel Viñas; but his works were equally long and, besides, only in Spanish—difficult Spanish. Nevertheless, I did want to practice reading Spanish, and I didn’t want a very short introduction or suchlike. Anthony Beevor’s account seemed to be just the right length; and its difficulty, when translated to Spanish, was ideal: challenging but doable.

Anthony Beevor is a military historian; and his book is mainly a record of armies and battles. The forces that destabilized the government and created so much tension within the country are quickly summarized; and the aftermath of the war—its legacy, its lingering effects in Spanish political life, its wider significance in 20th century political history—all this is hinted at, but not delved into. Like any historian, Beevor needs to set limits to his material. He focuses on the Iberian peninsula in the years between 1936-39.

Beevor is an excellent writer. His paragraphs are mines of information; he summarizes, offers statistics, gives striking examples. He surveys the battlefield like an aerial observer; he reports power struggles like an investigative journalist. He never lets the material run away from him, but compresses complex events into well-turned sentences. His focus is more on large-scale movements than on individual stories. The narration seldom pauses to analyze a person’s character, or to relate a telling anecdote, but instead maintains the perspective of a general examining his troops.

Beevor’s considerable powers of narration notwithstanding, he can’t help the fact that this war is complicated. So many actors are involved, all with different motives—communists, anarchists, republicans, trade unionists, conservatives, falangists, carlists, monarchists, Basques, Catalans, Germans, Italians, Soviets, Americans, British, French—that presenting the war as a clean story is impossible. Beevor breaks the material into 38 short chapters, focusing his gaze on one aspect, in an effort to do justice to the war’s complexity without overwhelming the reader. This is an effective strategy, but it comes at the price of a certain unpleasant fragmentation. The grand sweep of the narrative is obscured.

Nevertheless, this book does what I hoped it would: provide an overview of the conflict, the immediate causes, the principal actors, and the course of the war. Having said this, I must admit that the military history of the conflict—the battles, the strategies, the armaments—is only of passing interest to me.

What I really want to know is—Why? Why did a country decide to tear itself apart? Why did countrymen, neighbors, relatives decide to kill each other in mass numbers? Why did radicalism triumph on both the left and the right? Why did a democracy fail and a repressive regime seize power? These are big questions, which this book admittedly doesn’t address. To understand the historical background and the instability that led up to the war, I plan to read Gerald Brenan’s book, The Spanish Labyrinth.

In the meantime, I am left with little more than a picture of moral collapse. The really dreadful thing about this war is how few heroes there were in high places. Mass murders were committed on both sides. At the outbreak of the military coup, there are spontaneous slaughters of clergymen, monks, bishops, in the hundreds and thousands; and the Spanish Church, for its part, was too often complicit in repression and tyranny. Mass murders and executions were perpetrated on each side. To pick one example, when the republican side was in control of Málaga, 1,005 people were executed or murdered. In the first week after its conquest by the nationalists, over 3,000 people were killed; and by 1944, another 16,000 had been put to death.

On the republican side, important military decisions were made for political reasons; political propaganda was so pervasive that leaders felt blindly sure they would win, and tried to act to justify their boastful predictions. Useless offensives were carried out—in Segovia, Teruel, and the Ebro—costing thousands of lives and wasting the Republic’s resources, to capture targets of no strategic importance. Blindly trusting in high morale, anarchists refused to regulate the economy and discipline their troops, providing an “ideological excuse for inefficiency.” Stalinist factions eventually seized power on the “republican” side, violently suppressing other parties.

Brave volunteers from all over the world poured into Spain, most to fight against the fascists; and yet their zeal was squandered by careless leadership. Meanwhile, France, England, and the United States maintained a policy of “non-intervention,” while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia poured troops and military equipment into the country, testing out weapons and strategies that they would later use in the Second World War.

Eventually, of course, Franco won. Those on the losing side had few options. Many fled to France, where they were imprisoned in what amounted to concentration camps, in which they were forced to live on insufficient food, in unhygienic housing, and in freezing temperatures. In Saint-Cyprien, there were 50 to 100 deaths daily, and the other camps weren’t much better. After initial outrage, the French press promptly forgot the plight of these Spanish refugees. Those who remained in Franco’s Spain faced a gulag of imprisonment, forced labor, and death. Some escaped to the hills to hide out, and others fought in scattered bands of guerilla fighters; but these usually didn’t last long. And yet if the Stalinists had won the war, it isn’t clear that conditions would have been any better.

One thing that repeatedly struck me as I read through this book was the contrast in efficiency between the nationalists and the republicans. While Franco regulated his wartime economy and made effective military decisions, the republican side was awash in dozens of local currencies, busy worrying about forming syndicates, and preparing for the imminent proletariat “revolution.” On the same day as Málaga fell, when so many were put to death by Franco’s forces, in Barcelona the government was worrying about the collectivization of cows.

This seems to show us a persistent feature of both the left and the right. Equality and authority are two ideals at odds with one another; and most governments concern themselves with finding a balance between these two values. When the right becomes extreme, it gravitates towards extreme authority at the expense of equality; and when the left is radicalized, the reverse happens, and equality is fetishized. Thus we see the nationalist army consolidating itself under Franco, while the republican side devolved into warring factions, more concerned with their utopian schemes than with winning the war.

Equality without authority produces justice without power. Authority without equality, power without justice. The first is morally preferable in its ends and totally inadequate in its means; while the latter uses brutally efficient means to achieve brutally unjust ends. In practice, this means that, in direct contests, the extreme right will most often triumph over the extreme left, at least in the short-term; and yet in the long-term their emphasis on authority, obedience, and discipline produces unfair societies and unhappy populaces. The extreme left, for its part, after collapsing into mutually squabbling factions, sometimes devolves into the authoritarian pattern as one party emerges as the most powerful and as they lose patience with discussion (which doesn’t take long in a crisis).

Some middle-path is needed to navigate between these two ideals. But what’s the right balance? I suppose this is one of the oldest questions of human societies. In any case, as I put down this book, I am left with a dark picture lightened by very few bright patches.

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Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

ConfessionsConfessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are times when I am so unlike myself that I could be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character.

This book begins with a falsehood and only escalates from there. Rousseau, prone to hyperbole, boldly asserts that his autobiography is without precedent. Nevermind St. Augustine’s famous autobiography, which shares the same name; and ignore the works of St. Teresa, Benvenuto Cellini, and Montaigne. I suppose this sort of boastful exaggeration shouldn’t count for much; after all, Milton began Paradise Lost by saying he was attempting “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” Nevertheless, the second part of Rousseau’s assertion, that his enterprise would “find no imitator,” is even more indisputably false than the first one. This book has found nothing if not imitators.

Rousseau’s Confessions is really two distinct works, the first covering his childhood to his early adulthood, the second up to age fifty-three. For my part, the first is far better, and far more original. Like any modern self-psychoanalyzer, Rousseau traces his personality to formative events in his childhood—quite unusual at the time, I believe. Even more surprising is how frankly sexual is Rousseau’s story. He begins by describing the erotic pleasure he derived from being spanked by his nanny, relates a few homosexual encounters (undesired on his part), and frequently mentions masturbation. Much of the first book is simply prolonged descriptions of all the women he’s had anything to do with.

The second part is less striking, sometimes dull, but still full of interesting episodes. Rousseau has much to say about his career as a composer, something of which I had no idea before reading this book. He begins his career as a musician as a bungler and a phony, but eventually succeeds in closing the gap between his pretensions and abilities. It isn’t long before Rousseau finds himself stitching together some musical and lyrical fragments from Jean-Philippe Rameau and Voltaire into Les fêtes de Ramire, a one-act opera; and he soon becomes Rameau’s enemy, because (Rousseau is convinced) Rameau is jealous of Rousseau’s musical powers.

Rousseau also relates the famous tale of his children. After taking a seamstress, Thérèse, as his mistress, and having several children by her, he persuades her (and himself) to give them up to the foundling hospital. This is probably the most infamous episode of Rousseau’s life, and has provided plentiful fuel for those wish to discredit his ideas on education and child-rearing. As Rousseau grows old and becomes a man of letters, he accumulates ever more enemies, including Diderot and Grimm, who (Rousseau asserts) plotted relentlessly against him, partially because Rousseau scorned city life and modern luxuries.

I can’t help comparing this book with another great autobiography I recently read, that of Benvenuto Cellini. The two men are in many ways opposites. Cellini is a man of the world; his eye is turned exclusively outward; he is all action; he is confident in high society; he rarely blushes and never admits a fault. Rousseau is a man of sentiment and feeling, absorbed in his private world, often timid, awkward, and unsure of himself, and who often makes self-deprecating remarks.

And yet, the more I read, the more I saw strong similarities between these two self-chronicles. They are both massive egotists. If I were to write my autobiography, I’d hope that it would include some nice portraits of people in my life; but in these books there is no compelling portrait of anyone except their authors.

Like many narcissists, their vanity is easily wounded. They are obsessed with slights, and consider anyone who doesn’t show the proper respect to be, not only inconsiderate, but downright villainous. They both make enemies quickly, wherever they go. And yet, the fact that so many people they meet turn against them does not prompt them to pause and reflect; rather, they attribute all antipathy to envy, jealousy, or pure malevolence. Both have persecution complexes; both are paranoid; and both entertain extremely high opinions of their own virtues and abilities. In Rousseau’s own words, he is among “the best of men.”

It occurs to me that the urge to write an autobiography, in an age when autobiography was anything but common, requires a certain amount of narcissism. What surprises me is that these two men, Cellini and Rousseau, are also quite oblivious of themselves and utterly unable to question their own opinion. This is in strong contrast to Montaigne, somebody who Rousseau explicitly scorns:

I have always laughed at the false ingenuousness of Montaigne, who, feigning to confess his faults, takes great care not to give himself any, except such as are amiable; whilst I, who have ever thought, and still think myself, considering everything, the best of men, felt there is no human being, however pure he may be, who does not internally conceal some odious vice.

There may be a grain of truth in accusing Montaigne of attributing only amiable faults to himself (though reports by his contemporaries coincide remarkably well with Montaigne’s self-report). Even so, Montaigne had a quality that Rousseau eminently lacked: the ability to jump out of his own perspective. When playing with his cat, Montaigne paused to reflect “who knows whether she is amusing herself with me more than I with her?” And in that simple question—pushing himself out of his own skull, seeing himself from the eyes of his cat—he transcends all of the searching self-analysis of Rousseau. Rousseau’s total inability to, even for one moment, question his righteousness and his enemies’ wickedness is what makes him, by the end of the book, nearly intolerable—at least for me.

So much for Rousseau’s personality. As a portrait of a man, this book is interesting enough; but as the confessions of one of the most influential thinkers in the 18th century, it is far more so. Rousseau, whatever his faults, was undeniably remarkable. To paraphrase Will Durant, Rousseau, with almost no formal education, abandoned early by his father, wandering incessantly from place to place, setting himself as an enemy of the dominant currents of thought and art of the time, the avowed antagonist both of Rameau, the foremost composer, and Voltaire and Diderot, the foremost writers—this Rousseau nevertheless managed to become the decisive influence on the next century.

Cases like Rousseau’s make me stop and reflect about the nature of intellectual work. Neither a strong reasoner nor an adept researcher—any competent professor could poke gaping holes in his arguments and cite reams of factual inaccuracies—it is Rousseau, not they, who is still being studied at college campuses all over the world, and who will be the foreseeable future. Indisputably he was an excellent stylist, though this hardly accounts for his canonical status.

What sets Rousseau apart, intellectually at least, is his enormous originality. Rousseau himself realizes this:

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I am least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mold with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.

Rousseau wrote in a way no one had before. His ideas were fresh, his attitude unique. Although he had influences, there is nothing derivative about him. The more I read and the longer I live, the more am I drawn to the conclusion that the ability to form new ideas—genuinely new, not just re-interpretations of old ones—is one of the rarest human faculties. Rousseau had this faculty in abundance. It is impossible to read him within the context of his time and not be utterly astounded at his creativity.

It is just this sort of creativity, the thing we most celebrate and praise, that seems impossible to teach— impossible by definition, since you cannot teach somebody to think totally outside the bounds of your own paradigm. You cannot, in other words, teach someone to transcend everything you teach them. You can teach somebody to solve problems creatively; but how can you teach somebody to examine problems previously unimagined? This is just one of the paradoxes of education, I suppose.

In any case, Rousseau is just another example of those canonical thinkers who could never get tenure nowadays. It’s a funny world.

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Review: Arrival (2016)

Review: Arrival (2016)

 Rating: A-

Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

(Cover image taken from the official trailer.)

I have never written a movie review before, so have some patience while I get my bearings. Also, I clearly can’t say much without spoilers, so be warned.

The premise of Arrival intrigued me as soon as I heard it: a science-fiction alien story centered, not on warfare, but on language. Instead of a soldier, the protagonist is a linguist; and instead of defeating aliens she needs to understand them.

After a touching yet cryptic opening sequence—whose relation to the story isn’t revealed until much later—the movie begins with another day in the life of Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics. She walks into a lecture hall, one of those stale and lifeless theaters of knowledge, in order to give a class on the Romance languages—specifically, on why Portuguese sounds so different from the other languages. (She never explains this, which is frustrating, since I genuinely want to know!)

Something is clearly wrong, however, as few students are in class, and their phones keep beeping. The aliens have just arrived, and everybody all the world over is in a panic. The confusion and alarm that would accompany the appearance of genuine UFOs was portrayed with subtlety and realism. People are rushing home (but why would home be any safer?), the military is scrambling jets (in a show of force?), and the newscasters are droning on incessantly in their foux-knowledgeable voices, filling up airtime with their lack of information.

We see snatches of Banks’s life here, which give us a taste of her personality. She is a loner, somewhat cold, very quiet. We see her lakeside house—angular, empty, tranquil, and almost sterile. It needn’t even be said that she is single and lives alone. Snatches of a phone call with her mom further characterize her—she is calm, detached, and impatient of folly.

Then, as in any hero’s journey, comes the call to adventure, this time in the form of Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker, who gives his colonel a strong Boston accent). The Colonel dramatically puts a device on the table, and plays a chilling recording; it is an unintelligible series of clicks, whooshes, and moans, obviously not human. Can she translate it?

The call to adventure is at first refused (she can’t translate from a recording), and then accepted (as it must be for the movie), and soon enough Banks is snatched away to begin her quest. Next we are shown our first vision of the UFO: it is an oblong black egg that hovers ominously over the landscape, as pitifully small fighter jets fly by. The soundtrack, written by Jóhann Jóhannson, really shines in this sequence. Unearthly wailing sounds, reminiscent of alien speech, swell in and out over a droning base as the helicopters approach the monolithic object.

We also meet the other protagonist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who will work with Banks. The two of them soon begin their task.

The alien spacecraft opens up a hatch every 18 hours, giving the humans a two-hour window to go inside and make contact. (The reason for this pattern is never explained.) I particularly liked the portrayal of the huge number of precautions that the military takes when going inside the UFO. Even though no form of radiation, bacteria, or anything else potentially hazardous is detected, they must receive numerous booster shots, wear hazmat suits with heavy air purifiers, and be decontaminated each time they return.

Finally they go inside. Watching Donnelly’s childlike joy at touching the spacecraft is moving; for all he knows, he’s in a highly dangerous situation, and yet he is like a seven-year old at a zoo. I think his character is at least partially inspired by Carl Sagan, the alien-obsessed physicist. Like Sagan, Donnelly wants to communicate with the aliens through math, supposedly the universal language; and yet he soon must play second-fiddle to the linguist.

The inside of the ship is a large empty black chamber, composed of perfectly right angles. On the far end of the chamber is a transparent screen flooded with white light, through which the aliens appear. At first it is difficult to see them, because their side of the chamber is full of black smoke (part of the atmosphere they breathe?), and their form is only revealed gradually. I can’t say I was totally impressed by the design of the aliens. They are called “heptopods,” due to their having seven appendages and seven digits on each appendage; but they basically look like big, black, lumpy squids.

Thus begins the quest to communicate with the heptopods, which is the main drama of the movie. The government needs to ask them why they arrived on earth; and this requires quite a bit of linguistic prep work, since not only do our heroes need to make the question intelligible, but enough vocabulary is needed to make the answer meaningful. As far as I know, putting translation in the center of an alien movie is unique. In Independence Day (1996), for example—which I watched obsessively as a kid—the attempt to communicate with the giant UFOs lasts about three seconds. (They fly a helicopter near the alien craft to flash lights as a way of making contact; a laser blast promptly destroys the helicopter.)

Banks quickly realizes that verbal communication is a non-starter, since human vocal chords can’t reproduce heptopod speech. So she opts for written communication, and soon discovers that the heptopods have their own written language. This language is quite different from our own. It does not correspond with what the heptopods “say”; it is not, in other words, a transcription of speech. This means that the meaning is not sequenced in time.

Like a sentence in any other language, an English sentence has a front end and a back end, and must be read in the correct order to make proper sense. When we speak, we obviously must start at some time and end later; and so do our written sentences. Not so the heptopod system, wherein meaning is encoded, as it were, directly, with reference purely to ideas. It has the same meaning forward and backwards; and its meaning can be understood at a glance, like a picture.

Its easy to see how simple nouns and verbs—lions, helicopters, walking, giving—could be represented this way; but it is difficult for me to imagine how complex logical relationships or temporal sequences could be transcribed so that the message is the same forwards and backwards. The movie does not get into the mechanics of the language, however, which is just as well.

While I’m at it, I also wonder if linguistic communication would be possible at all with creatures from another planet. Wittgenstein famously said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”—meaning, I think, that our language is so tied up in our human experience of the world that it could never serve as a bridge across different species. Put another way, Wittgenstein thought that our language does not and cannot refer to pure ideas—notions that would be the same as understood by any creature.

Our experience of the world is so filtered through our senses, our biology, our specifically human brains, that it seems to me that an alien—from a planet with a vastly different ecosystem, breathing different atmosphere, with senses adapted to different conditions and a nervous systems built on entirely different principals—might conceptualize the world in such different terms that any real communication would be nearly impossible. All this is a massive digression, of course. But a movie that can prompt such ponderings is certainly worth watching.

Soon enough, Banks is coming to grips with the heptopod written language. The visual design of this language is excellent: it is written in inky smoke, and takes the form of a circular swirl with complex bulges and branches. Meanwhile, Banks is beginning to have strange visions, all featuring an unidentified little girl—the same girl from the opening sequence. It is clear that Banks is her mother; and these can’t be memories, since Banks has never had children. Is Banks cracking from sleep deprivation?

While Banks is working on the translation, the world situation is growing ever-more tense. There are twelve of these “shells” (as they’re called), and each country is taking a different approach to communicating with the heptopods. People everywhere are panicking. An image of one of the creatures is leaked and goes viral. China in particular is full of military bluster, and seems constantly on the verge of attacking their shell; and the longer the situation persists, the more people seem to think that the wise thing to do is take military action.

This brings us to one of the movie’s major themes: confronting the unknown. The only thing threatening about the shells is that they are mysterious. Who are the aliens? Where did they come from? What do they want? They don’t attack; they don’t cause any damage; they just hover above the landscape. And yet, the mere presence of unknown visitors causes riots, protests, looting, cult suicides—total panic. It almost seems as if people would prefer that the aliens demonstrated some malicious intent; at least then they’d know what to do. In this situation of total ambiguity, people’s fears fill up the vacuum of knowledge. Never mind that the aliens likely have technology far in advance of humans. We have the urge to attack, not because it’s wise, but to end this terrifying doubt.

What should you do when you confront the unknown? Understand it, or destroy it? This is the movie’s essential question. Banks represents the first solution. The main drama of the movie takes place in the shell’s chamber. There, the confrontation is given stark visual form: Banks stands and stares straight into the blinding light at the other end. The aliens are literally unreachable, separated by a partition. They communicate by imposing form onto nebulous clouds. Language is the tool through which Banks and the heptopods bridge the gap that separates them from one another.

Captain Marks, who works with Banks and Donnelly, represents the other solution. We see him listening to conservative talk radio—an obvious parody of Rush Limbaugh—whose host castigates the Army for not having enough guns, and recommends a “shot across the bow” as a demonstration of human military might. This is probably the movie’s wryest cultural comment, the tendency of the right to use blustering and macho rhetoric, even in highly delicate and complex situations. Captain Marks, spooked by this and also by his wife’s fears, decides to go rogue and attack the ships. His attack fails to accomplish anything, however, and only results in his own death (or imprisonment?) and makes Banks’s job that much more difficult.

Another major theme of the movie is our inability to work together, even in the direst of circumstances. Although it is obviously within each country’s best interest to share their data and collaborate—a “non-zero sum game,” to quote the movie—communication ultimately breaks down between nations as suspicion and paranoia take hold.

As Banks repeatedly shows, communication requires trust, which is exactly why she is so skilled at it. Instead of being scared of contamination and frightened of approaching the heptopods, she removes her protective suit and puts her hand on the glass. In other words, she chooses to trust the heptopods. Communication breaks down between the nations of the world precisely because of this lack of trust; they are afraid that the aliens are trying to get them to attack one another.

Full crisis mode ensues when Banks finally asks what the aliens are doing on earth, and gets the response “Offer Weapon.” Thus begins the dramatic final sequence, during which Banks has to rush to interpret this message before other nations of the world begin bombing their shells. After a final visit to the shell, the heptopods explain to Banks that the “weapon” is their own language, which, because it is the same forwards and backwards, allows you to see the future when you learn it. They are offering it to humanity because they will need humanity’s help in 3,000 years (which they know because they can see the future).

By the way, the idea that learning a non-temporal language could so fundamentally alter your perception of time, allowing you to see into the future, is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, otherwise known as linguistic relativity. This is a real theory, put forward in the 1950s, which argued that your language fundamentally shapes your perception of the world. The most famous (and also most infamously incorrect) example of this are supposedly huge number of words for “snow” among the Inuit, reportedly allowing them to see fine differences in different types of snow. Strong versions of this hypothesis—in which one’s language totally shapes your cognitive processes—have been ruled out; but it is true, I believe, that our language influences our thought in manifold subtle ways.

Banks, now aware of her new ability, looks into the future in order to see how she can prevent the impending catastrophe, and stop the Chinese from attacking their shell. Like all time travel, this presents some interesting paradoxes of causality. Can knowledge of the future, already determined by the present, influence the present? If the only reason that Banks could obtain the information she needed was because she had already used it, what causes what? This paradox is sort of glossed over, and that’s fine by me.

The crisis resolved, the heptopods mysteriously vanish—having accomplished their goal of uniting the peoples of the world and teaching humanity their language—and Banks is left to live her life. This leads, predictably, to a romantic entanglement with physicist Ian Donnelly. He is the man with whom Banks has her daughter, an adorable little girl who is fated to die from a “really rare disease” sometime in her adolescence.

This brings us to the movie’s second major theme: confronting the known. Because she can see the future, Banks is forced to live her life with full awareness of how everything will turn out. Her marriage to Donnelly will end in divorce, and her daughter will die young. Indeed, Donnelly wants a divorce precisely because he thinks they shouldn’t have had a daughter if Banks knew she would die.

The odd fact is that total knowledge is, in a way, far more terrifying than total mystery. It is one thing to try something when you’re not sure you’ll succeed, but it requires even more courage to try something even when you know you will fail. And yet, Banks embraces her fate, and lives her life anyway. This is the most literal illustration of Nietzsche’s amor fati, love of fate, that I’ve ever seen: instead of trying to change anything, Banks tries to appreciate each moment for what it is.

As far as acting goes, the standout performance is Amy Adams’s. Her portayal of Banks is subtle and sensitive. Banks is quiet without being timid, highly observant but fiercely independent, and incredibly strong without being overpowering. She speaks in a soft voice, nearly a whisper, and her face is usually deadpan calm. And yet this makes the emotional moments of the film that much more touching.

I am glad that such a thoughtful, tasteful movie is finding both commercial and critical success nowadays. While arguably somewhat derivative of Kubrick’s work—the visuals and sound-effects were polished and excellent, but hardly groundbreaking—Arrival manages to ask many deep questions within a gripping and accessible plot. All in all, a truly excellent film.

 

Directed by Denis Villenueve

Written by Eric Heisserer

Staring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker