Monday, January 30, 2012

Le Monde 100: The Gulag Archipelago

I am convinced that the Soviet Union suffered from a national case of dermatillomania.

Dermatillomania is a mental disorder that causes the sufferer to continually pick at their skin. He or she will obsess over their skin and tear, rip, peel, and scratch at themselves to the point of causing harm all over their body. The root of the problem is impulse control brought on by anxiety.

In reading The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one can see the same symptoms of dermatillomania. Observe, if you will, the body of the dermatillomaniac, riddled with scabs and scratches, peppered with a constellation of his shame and paranoia:

Now, observe another picture of the Soviet Union:

The dots you see on the map are labor camps, which are the scabs of the Soviet shame and paranoia.
The Soviet system was responsible for more than double the deaths of the Nazi Holocaust. But, the worst thing about the Gulag and the compulsive imprisonment of the Soviet citizens, was not it's nefarious plan to do away with it's citizens like Hitler did, but rather the spiraling of a bureaucracy into a machine gone wrong. In reading Solzhenitsyn's account of the government's relationship with its people, I am struck by the notion that if a government is like a computer program, acting out the policies and laws that form it, then the Soviet Union behaved like it had a virus.

For example, to speak against the Soviet system would earn you a label under Article 58 of the Soviet law. Being rewarded for turning in those who spoke against the government and punished for sedition caused the public to look askew at everyone of their fellow men.  Once, at a public conference, everyone in attendance was called to to applause in tribute to Comrade Stalin. Solzhenitsyn writes:

"For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the 'stormy applause' rising to an ovation,' continued. But, palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching . . . It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really loved Stalin. However, who would dare to be the first to stop? . . .The applause went on. Six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes! They were done for! . . . Nine minutes! Ten! . . . After eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place. To a man, every else stopped dead and sat down.

"That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of interrogation, his interrogator reminded him.
         'Don't ever be the first to stop applauding!"

It seems like the entire Soviet Union applauded right down to the falling of the Berlin wall.
The failure of the Soviet Union was the ultimate failure to recognize the individual as a sovereign of his or her personhood in the context of the State. The Soviets hamhandedly esteemed the State over the individual. Thus, erasing humanity as a virtue in light of the machine of government.

Some scientists feel that dermatillomania comes from repressed rage at authoritarian parents and that overbearing parenting can cause this obsessive form of control over one's self. Was the Soviet Union working out its issues with coming from monarchy and Tsardom? Perhaps. But, like abusive parents, abused children can become abusive and pass down abusiveness to their children over and over until someone becomes self-aware and breaks the cycle. Is Russia aware now? One would have to assume with the wealth of information available to everyone. What about other dictatorships like North Korea? They seem to be in the same place as the Soviet Union once was as can be attested by the forced mourning at Kim Jong-Il's death. Whatever the case, the Gulag Archipelago is definitely a handbook for conscientious dictators.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Le Monde 100: Paroles

Jacques Prevert is a film maker and an important one at that. His film The Children of Paradise is considered one of the greatest films ever made by many critics.
I have never seen it.
However, I have just finished reading Paroles, a collection of poetry by Prevert that was written in after World War II. It is a translation from French to English, which many people find lacking as English is not one of the Romance languages. Here is an example of the difference of his poem "Alicante" for you to decide:

Une orange sur la table
Ta robe sur le tapis
Et toi dans mon lit
Doux present du present
Fraicheur de la nuit
Chaleur de ma vie.

An orange on the table
Your dress on the rug
And you in my bed
Sweet present of the present
Cool of night
Warmth of my life.

It's hard to tell if it's these particular words sound better or if it's just the fact that the French language roles off the tongue so much nicer.

A copy of Paroles was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights bookstore. That makes sense because, even though Prevert didn't have the same stream-of consciousness approach to poetry like many of the Beats, he did pull his inspiration from the ramifications of being in a so-called "civilized" society in the light of incredible horrors inflicted by it. For the Beats, the evil of society seemed to be rampant industrialism, which was the breeding ground for the nuclear arms race. For Prevert, it seemed to be a more personal evil of patriotism, much like Louise-Ferdinand Celine. In my favorite poem of his, "The New Order," Prevert writes of the German soldier who has to deal with the dulling of the shine of the stars of the Great Hope they once had in Hitler. He has to live in a "New Order" that is very different than what he thought it would be and it is equal to returning home to live in a house that has fallen down.

Prevert has a way of creating a scene in the mind that is both visual and poignant and is probably why his screenwriting is so popular.  The opening lines in "The New Order" read like the setting passages of a play:

The sun lies on the soil
Litre of spilled wine
A house has collapsed
Like a drunk on the pavement

If someone has a copy of The Children of Paradise, can we please have a viewing party?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Le Monde 100: The Second Sex

            The mathematics that are involved in the sonar of the bat are incredibly complicated. The concepts of distance, triangulation, and velocity are best understood by super computers and advanced algorithms. However, the bat knows nothing about the algebraic numbers and figures that is uses to navigate the dark with instantaneous reaction time. The bat's knowledge is innate and organic. It arose in it instinctively.

            Likewise, I feel the same way about the concepts of feminism. Until I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, I always felt a need to buck against any pre-conceived notions of what a woman should and shouldn't be, and to reject any assumptions of woman's role in the home.
            But, conditioning can play with one's instincts. At family dinners, there is a ritual that seems to be not unusual in regards to the power relationships with men and women. It is be quite typical in families like mine, which is half-Italian and half-British, both of which display the same behavior. The women or woman of the house is cooking dinner in the house while the men wait with drinks in another room. The men sit at the table with the eldest men at the position of power at either end of the table. Dinner is served with the women catering to the accoutrement of the men. After dinner, women will clear the table while men "talk" about "important issues."
           It is very easy to fall into this pattern as an emerging man, especially when actively promoted as correct by elders. On more than one occasion, I was urged to sit back down as I started to help clear dishes because it was women's work, and now I sometimes have to push down sub-conscious feelings of entitlement when confronted with this situation.
           Simone de Beauvoir is a mad genius of feminism. The length and breadth of her discussion of woman's role within nature and society is so deep it seems like multiple authors had a hand in this book. The Second Sex is to feminism as advanced mathematics is to the bat's sonar. Feminism is an ideal that executes the concept that woman is an individual, and as the importance of the individual increases as time goes on, the importance of feminism increases as well.
            At first, I was irritated at a lot of her examples of the female condition as I thought they were mere hyperbole used to prove a point. But, I soon realized that extreme and varied experiences demonstrate the many forms of the feminine experience, and that experience is entirely created by the individual. After reading The Second Sex, I now understand that to say that one knows what it is to be objectively feminine is extreme arrogance, especially if a man is saying it.
           If a woman wants to clear the table and serve her guests, that's fine. It's her decision. It's okay to have whatever role makes one happy. But, it is when her role is pre-defined do we find concepts that can crush her.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Le Monde 100: Waiting For Godot

"It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance..." - Henry James

When I was a very young person, I was deposited by my father on one of his renovation jobs. Everyone on this job was very busy and engaged in their own particular tasks - installing a handrail, grouting the kitchen bathroom, building a wall...e.t.c. I was to act as a general helper and assist everyone as the need arose.

But, instead of fulfilling my father's vision of a diligent son, I actually became the equivalent of a talking orangutan in my productivity and spent the whole time playing, wandering, and nosing about. In time, my uselessness reached a fever pitch and the foreman, a gruff bald man in suspenders, planted me in a chair next to a telephone and told me not to get up.

"This job is going to be the most important one in the house. This telephone might ring and you need to sit here and answer it. You can't leave this phone for a second, not until we leave."

I waited there all day for the phone to ring and, of course, it never did. It's quite possible that it wasn't plugged in.

It was only later did I realize that this was a punishment after a report was delivered to my father.

It didn't seem like a punishment at the time because I truly thought the task of waiting for a telephone to ring gave that waiting meaning. However, it had none in of itself.

In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett strips down all context and history of his characters to create the existential situation of Vladimir and Estragon, who wait by a lonely tree in the wilderness for a man named Godot, who never comes. As time passes, they fill their time with eating, dancing, singing, crying, talking, thinking, and other mundane tasks over and over in order for them to give themselves the "impression that they exist."

There are so many ways to interpret this play. But it seems to primarily address the need to give one's self a purpose in life in order to fend off the murkiness of the future. Man has an inherent need for closure that conflicts with his inherent need to exist. Throwing one's self into the tasks of life allow one's self to forget about endings and ideals by putting one's consciousness squarely in the present moment.

Purpose in life is always a subjectively crafted thing. The answer isn't the same for everybody. One must decide what one's purpose is and, instead of waiting for a Godot to appear to put a cap on the story, one need only wait for one's self. Even for those of us that believe we have been given a purpose from heaven, the decision is still from within to purpose one's self in that direction.

Looking back at that day by the telephone, I remember being satisfied in the goofiest way possible. Perhaps, I am still that way.