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Monday, June 23, 2008

Foucault's Pendulum - Chapters 1 through 80

Foucault's Pendulum continues to be one of my favorite books ever. This mix of masonic ritual, Templar theory, religious history, mystery comes complete with incredibly deep characters and very integral sub-plots. There's a long history of people getting intimidated by the book, really, for no other reason that it deals with an incredible amount of terminology, often in Latin, French, Portuguese or Spanish. I love this book... loved it the first time I read it and like it even more now.

I've gotten to the point in which the protagonists (the editors/researchers of Garamond Press) are in the throngs of completing their Plan. The Plan essentially is just an invented plot of diabolical minutia that the Garamond Press gang put together and published seeing if, in fact, the Templars would come out to "play." They are tempting the Diabolicals to come out of their hiding by offering them a secret that does not exist. Certain parts of the Plan have been put together by "Abulafia," Jacopo Belbo's computer. Right now, you can cut the tension with a sawing blade. I can't wait to get to the end. The last few chapters really get lyrical and demonstrates that Umberto Eco is a genius in the ranks of Joseph Roth, Knut Hamsun, Herman Hesse, and even Roque Dalton.

I've been away because like a fool I decided to complete the requirements for a M.Ed. degree this summer. The only reason I am doing it is because I am only being charged 30% of all tuition and fees. I wonder if B.A. + M.A. + M.Ed. = Ph.D. Nah, just kidding... I am really not that interested.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

5,000 Words on Why I Should Stay the F*** Out of Mr. William Forrester's Apartment

Well, after much delay and nasty unreadable scribblings on my Moleskine, here's the essay I promised my students a few weeks ago. If you've never watched the film "Finding Forrester," here's a quick and definitive way of getting caught up. You can watch a short trailer (HERE) that includes the scene where William Forrester says those now famous words to Jamal. This essay is imaginary, and at times humorous. The novel plots included here (including the one for "Avalon Landing") are original and no fault should be directed at either fictional character in the film :-)

5,000 Words on Why I Should Stay the F*** Away from Mr. William Forrester's Apartment

by Jamal Wallace
While the purpose of this essay began as a humorous endeavor, the seriousness of its general application and meaning shouldn’t be ignored. When writing about one of the greatest challenges known to humans one must keep the proverbial “straight face.” Solitude, loneliness, abandonment (whether forced or self-imposed) are some of the most painful experiences a person can undergo. Any of these terms, by definition, are often accompanied by a wide variety of individual interpretations. Often time, the definition of experiences such as these takes place within a personal space; say, a prison cell, a workplace office, or even a place of residence. In the case of a self-imposed isolation that occurs in an apartment or home, the given solitude takes on a meaning all of its own. It is impossible for me to understand Mr. William Forrester’s solitude, his self-imposed isolation, and due to the fact that he is a fictional character, I can only approximate a general examination of his personal reasons. Nevertheless, it is the premise of his assignment that rings factual and concrete—a level of respect that should have been obviously present to me but which I found easy to ignore.
Solitude and isolation remain an abstract experience to me. I’ve lived with my mother and my brother all of my life. Mr. Forrester doesn’t share this experience with me. In fact, his experience is the complete opposite of mine. As a result, Mr. Forrester has had the life-long experience (should I say the opportunity) to live out the meaning of those aforementioned abstractions. Year after year, alone in his apartment, Mr. Forrester translates that painful isolation/loneliness into a glorious exhilaration in the silence he occupies. He invented a space where not only his body resides, but also his most menial thoughts; his most common ideas turn into a clamorous presence, all of them standing in line demanding his unequivocal attention. Out of this solitude, Mr. Forrester’s ideas materialize into writing. These he might consider his “visitors,” his accompanists to his personal and lonely song of grief.
Of course I would be the first to admit that I shouldn’t have violated this sacred place by breaking into his apartment. What I didn’t realize while I walked through his dark apartment that night was how wrong I acted, and how with every step I took I stepped into one of Mr. Forrester’s “visitors.” I seemed to have dirtied their pristine shapes, offended their virginal forms. Mr. Forrester’s anger directed at me was not simply justified because of my vulgar act; he has all the right to ask me to write this essay, to force me reflect on what solitude and loneliness and silence really mean.
William Forrester’s novel, Avalon Landing is the story of a man who returns from World War II and finds that the damage done to him makes him utterly incompatible with his former life. In the short months after his return his life spirals out of control—he loses his marriage; is not allowed to see his children; he is unable to hold a job of any kind. He insists in revisiting the places of his youth: his boyhood home, his high school and college, but to no avail. Four months after returning from the unbelievable violence of jungle fighting in the South Pacific, he finds himself living out of his car, the winter months upon him.
The bulk of the novel’s story is told by the protagonist himself in the first person. I am quite certain that Mr. Forrester wanted to achieve some sort of intimacy between the writer and the reader. After all, the story is being told while the protagonist rests on the backseat of his old Dodge, trying hard to keep warm. I can’t think of a better place to accent solitude, loneliness and isolation. The story is episodic in nature. The protagonist, telling his story retrospectively, goes back and forth in the timelines. While he keeps his story about what happened in the war relatively short (the book is only 52,523 words long), the narrator tells the reader about his platoon’s dreadful and tragic end. They had been sent by the high command to fulfill an impossible mission, some type of patrol that took them deep into Japanese occupied territory. At first, the narrator protested and did not want to take his platoon on this particular mission, calling it some “futile madness.” His superiors pressed on and he had no alternative but to lead his platoon right to its inevitable end. He knew that if they ran into trouble, there would be no backup or reinforcements—just him and the last of his men. As predicted, the platoon is slaughtered. Only two men survive. The narrator recalls how he and a Private First Class survived the ambush, tried to retrieve some of the bodies of their comrades, fail to do so and survived four days in the jungle evading Japanese patrols until by some miracle found themselves back to the American lines. The Private First Class’ name was Nicholas D. Avalon.
Because of its episodic structure, the narrator elaborates throughout the novel on different stages of his life in what appears a non-chronological line. I am not quite sure what Mr. Forrester intended by structuring his novel in this way; perhaps it was some effort at breaking the fictional standard expected of the post-War public. He speaks of his marriage before and after the war, the particularly distressing set of circumstances that drove him to call his automobile “home,” his college days before and after December 7th, the birth of his children. The reader might be disappointed in finding that after both the narrator and Nicholas D. Avalon arrive home from the war, they quickly lose contact with each other. As the narrative finds the present tense, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding the whereabouts of Nicholas D. Avalon. This jump to the present takes place between chapter eight and chapter nine, and in the course of this time, six years evolved with a quick pass of the page. After a few false leads, he does indeed find Nicholas D. Avalon very much alive. Nicholas had gone on to college on the G.I. Bill, found love with one of the homely co-eds on campus, became an English teacher in the local high school of the town where he now made his residence. Wife, children, job and fulfillment—Nicholas had it all. The conversation between the men might leave some readers yearning for more, reaching out and trying to listen in to what these men said to each other. But again, Mr. Forrester’s mastery of plot eliminates much of the conversation that serves as the catalyst for the narrator’s return to normalcy. Nicholas D. Avalon does indeed save the narrator’s life. Merely his example about how to live life after the disastrous experience of war is enough for the narrator to find a new path in his life. Despite the fact that the narrator doesn’t relate much about living in his car through the cold winter months, I became aware that a deep sense of solitude must have overwhelmed him into his elaborate narrative style. I am not here to debate the meaning of Mr. Forrester’s novel (God knows he hated that) but it is certainly safe to say that a deep yearning for solitude—the solitude a writer must work with—was at hand. While the meaning of Avalon Landing is not exactly a “soup question,” I have tried for eight years to make sense of William’s voice within the written page. That is not to say that I associate the author directly to the narrator simply because he was a personal friend of mine. I spent countless hours with him. Knowing an author personally can indeed tarnish the reader’s interpretation of the novel, but in the case of William, the only part of him that spoke with his voice was the narrator’s desire for the solitude of his car. The backseat of the narrator’s car became William’s own allegory of a safe place, the symbolic cocoon he struggled to keep for himself and that I violated when I broke into his apartment that night.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper: Themes & Meaning

In the interest of rounding up the major themes of this blog I am risking being taken for a "blogser" (meaning: poser). The fact that I took two courses on visual art appreciation doesn't qualify me as an "connoisseur" of sorts. I still, however, remember a great deal of the material studied, and how the mechanics of lines and direction makes the viewer understand the painting better. I selected Edward Hooper because I am interested in his exposition of the themes of isolation, meaninglessness and even nihilism. I could be making more of it than it is, but I've seriously given it a great deal of thought these days (despite my lack of time), and I have been hoping for a long time to open up with Hopper for my visual arts postings. The iconic picture, of course, would be "Nighthawks." Hopper painted "Nighthawks" at a very crucial time in the United States. The actual paining was completed in 1942--the shock of the United States' entrance into World War II not yet fully digested, and the memories of the Great Depression not long forgotten. A great book regarding this amazing painting is Gordon Theisen's "Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche." This is perhaps the best known of Hooper's canvases, and maybe the easiest to examine in terms of where "the eyes go" when one looks at it. And looking at it, it seems that the two main lines of the painting are probably the easiest part to identify. The facade of the building at an angle guides the eye--but where? Doesn't it seem strange that the fast moving lines come to a screeching halt at the edge of what appears to be a curved glass window? Where do these lines then go? It took me a while to see the resolution. Lines B and A shoot down the painting too fast for them to be the first thing a viewer observes; the eyes immediately fall on the couple and the waiter. But let's look at it again. The viewer has to absorb the rest of the painting as it moves from right to left (an often used Hooper technique). And again, the lines lead to a "dead-end." So where do we go from there? Back to the couple and the waiter, pausing to question who is the solitary figure? He is like a thorn, dead center on the canvas, yet not telling a story, not allowing us to see the meaning as a given. He is the factor of isolation, the most common theme on this series of paintings Hooper developed into his trademark. It is about the man, I believe. His lack of visible facial features speaks to the fact that he is the "everyday" man, he who despite working hard, faces the incredible hardships of loneliness. He is only allowed to contemplate--across the lunch counter--what he is missing, lacking, or not worthy of. That leads to a larger social definition. The three costumers appear at the same socio-economic level, perhaps a bit higher than the service job worker (wage slave). Therefore, structure (lines), philosophy of isolation as catalyst for meaning and a socio-economic interpretation are all possible here.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

The Religion of the Samurai -- Zen & Reality: A Comparative Analysis

The book I am reading right now "Zen: The Religion of the Samurai" by Professor Kaiten Nukariya is a complex examination of Zen, its origins in China, its transport to Japan, and its impact on the Bushido philosophy. Nukariya explains early in the book about the two main schools of Zen that evolved from the core Buddhism as it originated in India and China. The Hinayana Tripitaka and the Mahayana Tripitaka evolve from the desires of monks to explain the mysteries of Buddhism into more practical methods. The origins of Buddhism in China are explained from a sketchy history, since many of the documents that held the facts of that history have been lost through the decay of history, and most of what survives from the origins come from a rich oral tradition. The title of the book is a bit misleading. The mention of the Samurai/Bushido mentality/philosophy is not mentioned until page 30 and that for a small paragraph. The book goes back to history of the religion in general, and then a brief comparison of Zen monks and Samurai warriors as being more similar than it originally appears. The Histories are, of course, interesting, and I have learned a great deal about Buddha in general, as I did when I read "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World" by Pankaj Mishra.

Professor Nukariya offers a definition of Enlightenment that is a bit confusing; it appears more a Zen koan than a real definition, since it is composed of a revolving/circular reasoning that leads to its own premise. His explanation is more an effort at discouraging a definition of Enlightenment in general. As Louis Armstrong said once when asked about the meaning of Jazz: "If you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

The different levels of spiritual and objective reality are examined closely from the Zen perspective. The question of what constitutes spirit and how it connect all things appears in this book as over-simplistic, but someone who may not know about Zen can definitely appreciate such. All things, explains Nukariya, are alive and connected--even inanimate objects! He challenges the idea using the premises of sub-atomical structures that dictate that even inanimate objects are constantly on the move at that level, and that their moving is as chaotic as fate is to knowing animals (humans). Sub-atomic composition is, for Nukariya, a level of spirituality, a soul of sorts. I am afraid to ask one of our Physics Department professors for fear of being laughed at. They'd probably turn me away telling me not to ask questions that concern the soul. I can appreciate that.

All of this reminds me of my study of Kitaro Nishida's "An Inquiry into The Good" when I lived in Japan in 1994. The introduction, written by Yale Professor Masao Abe, explains how the question of whether or not there's "real" philosophy in Japan has been asked over and over again. His premise is that if you look for Western-based philosophy (objective/rational inquiries) in Japan, you'll only find Nishida as the originator of a philosophy based on Zen but aimed at explaining phenomena objectively. So, all in all, Nishida's book aims to incorporate both schools. He uses the principles of Hegel, James, Heidegger, etc., but gives it all a Zen twist. What I remember the most from this book is Nishida's introduction to the idea of "Pure Experience." As he explains it, "Pure Experience" takes place in the instant we see some object, but cannot know what it is for. For example, a person looks at a tool but doesn't know what the tool is for. Well, before he can tell what it is for, he or she can tell it is a tool, that it is grey in color with red handgrips, etc. That, in a sense, is post-judgment. But if we to "freeze-frame" the moment his or her eyes first encounter the instrument/tool, before any type of judgment is made about it... that, in a nutshell, is "Pure Experience." That, of course, is an over-simplistic example, but looking deeper into "Pure Experience" and applying it to different more serious situations, we find that "Pure Experience" is an area of inquiry worthy of study, as much as, perhaps, pragmatism, absolutism, etc. are. One other example of this might be the encounter (First Contact) that occurred recently between "modern" men in an airplane and a tribe of natives in the deep forest of the Amazon. Whatever it was that the tribe first saw, before they could even react to the plane as a threat and, as they truly did, started shooting arrows at it, it was "Pure Experience." Before it was a threat, before they ran for cover because they felt threatened, the tribe must have looked up in wonder at the thing flying above them. That is "Pure Experience."

The fact that the tribe connected the plane to a threat touches back to Nukariya in "The Religion of the Samurai." Humans need a complete detachment from phenomena to achieve "Pure Experience." Which develops into an even more interesting question or questions: What, besides First Contact, can bring about "Pure Experience?" How is the world of technology helping to expose us to "almost everything," making us unable to see "Pure Experience." Do we already see that technology as predictable? Has the Internet made our possible encounter with "Pure Experience" null?

Going back to Zen in general, a few things are worth mentioning further. The main differences between Hinayana and Mahayana is that they are considered polar opposites. That is to say, Hinayana is considered pessimistic in nature, while Mahayana is more associated with optimism and positive outcomes. It is because of this that some Zen sayings are considered (incorrectly) as nihilist. Further notes about Zen and spirit yields another conflict with Western ideas of the soul. Zen problematizes the fact that the Western "soul" continues to carry with it the personality, irks and quirks, peccadilloes, etc. of the individual who has just expired. Buddhism in general urges the opposite: detachment, separation, "egolessness," etc. Egotism, argues Nukariya, makes people selfish enough to consider they need to continue to exist in their souls, ad infinitum. This is the cornerstone of egotism as it is known in the West.... what is considered the ultimate betrayal to the Truth in Buddhism.

"The Religion of the Samurai" in general has a lack of connection to how Zen applies to the Samurai and how Zen ended up being part and parcel of the warrior spiritual life. It's already page 90 out of 127 and the link to Bushido has not been clearly established. Perhaps Nukariya has saved the best for last. Next on my reading list: a re-read of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum."

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