On Kleist

Reading Kleist is an exhilarating experience that can be very unpleasant. I don’t think any stories have ever moved me the way Kleist’s do, but I’m having a hard time describing this effect in words. I’d like to say that his sentences manage to capture the beauty and anxiety of a single moment, but that makes absolutely no sense. Maybe I can get to it by thinking about something else.

 Do expectations ruin our experience of the future, or do they help us tolerate it? The answer is both. Moreover, expectations themselves become a sort of experience that can be both positive and negative. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels more alive when they’re striving to achieve a goal than when they actually achieve it. Nor am I the first person who has become stressed over something that turned out to not be very bad at all.

Kleist’s style thrives on the managing of expectation. The chain of events he describes follow a natural progression so that you can guess how a story will end after reading the first page. At the same time, however, you’re afraid that it really will end that way. Reading his stories, expectations neither ruin the experience of the ending nor help you tolerate it. Every sentence carries a finality outside of the plot of the story. In the Earthquake in Chile, for example, there are no distractions. Every line shapes the story in the same way that the things you do shape the person you become which shapes the things you do in the future. Every action leads to a thought that leads to an action and so on. Every need to act leads to a need to think and after every thought there is a need to act. This is all very obscure.

Ultimately, it’s unpleasant to read Kleist stories because you want to be able to tell his characters to not get their hopes up, or to have faith, or to not go to the church, or that you support them, but you can’t because they’re not real. It’s unpleasant because it reminds you of the times you’ve wanted, in hindsight, to tell yourself to not believe something or to not do something, producing the same anxiety that comes anytime you realize you cannot change the past. It’s unpleasant because his plot, and the speed with which he writes it (and all of the transitions), mimic the thing responsible for your bad decisions. Time moves, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you’re forced to act. And when we’re afraid of acting we think, and that’s the most tragic part because thinking doesn’t help anything. Doing the thing that will result in the most positive outcome is the only thing that matters.

 When we’re looking at things in hindsight we accept a fatalism that makes any thought, any attempt at trying to control our destinies, to be a tragic setup for disappointment and failure.

The anxiety from Kleists’s stories comes from feeling that the character’s stories is already written, but they’re so alive (why do they feel so alive? I think it has to do with their totally believable sense of expected surprise ) that when they think they can control their future, you feel pity for them.

This is a long way of saying that Kleist is an uncomfortable, but masterful writer who everyone should at least give a try.

Book Review: Voyage to Arcturus

I first learned of Voyage to Arcturus when I read that Harold Bloom’s only published work of fiction was a sequel to it. Bloom is probably the reason why I tend to view writers as the most important of creators, but for a long time now I’ve dismissed the majority of his opinions. This is because after a year of consulting his anthologies I realized that I looked to him more as an influential figure upon which I could support my own prejudices than as a source of illumination. Now, it’s almost impossible to go back to what Bloom has to say after reading Longinus and Nabokov and Unamuno and Borges.

Still, I continue to see Bloom as a great, if too subjective, reader and I was curious to know why he had found Voyage of Arcturus important enough to write a sequel to.  

Reading Voyage I’m stuck in the embarrassing position of knowing too much to find the novel illuminating and not enough to make any sense of it. The first thing anyone who reviews Voyage to Arcturus mentions is that it does not include any of the traditional markings of a successful novel.  In fact, Maskull’s quest falls under Forster’s definition of story as opposed to plot. Events happen in succession but there is no link that binds them together. Instead the narrative unfolds in the same way dreams do, and Maskull follows them with the same oblivious certainty of dreamers. An eventful, and remembered, night of dreaming will include episodes disjointed from one another, characters we’ve never met but who we know and understand, and actions that we will without knowing why, all of which a Voyage to Arcturus also includes.

In his attempt to describe the indescribable, Lindsay endows Maskull with a succession of sensory organs which perceive countless adjectives. While this attempt works on some levels, there is never a moment of sublime understanding that language is an impossible tool with which to convey what he needs to. These moments occur frequently in Shakespeare, and it’s that frustration that gives a glimpse of the depth of what Shakespeare’s characters were trying to convey but couldn’t.

While I can understand why some might experience “religious terror” reading the novel, I did not. Instead, too many times I found myself trying to rationalize or excuse Lindsay’s narrative mistakes.  The novel’s structure and its unimaginative language hindered the overall effect. I can imagine experiencing something like aesthetic wonder had the novel been an epic or play of beautiful prose. Had that been the case, Krag’s final line would have really been terrifying. But ultimately, Maskull’s quest for authentic reality is one which no longer interests me, and Lindsay did not manage to enchant me into considering it again. Maybe had I read it last year I would have formed a different opinion. Maybe in the future I will read it again and see it in a different light.There are some awesome passages, and Voyage To Arcturus is a novel which some people will find infinitely meaningful. I recommend you read it, if only to see if you’re one of them, but for most, myself included, the overall effect will be one of indifference.

On the Execution of Shonen Manga

Any fan of Shonen manga knows that a lot of its tension is found in the strength level of their characters and their attempts to increase it. This makes the calibration, presentation and development of power levels and abilities in Shonen manga supremely important, since it can have embarrassing results if not handled properly. The more chapters a manga series accumulates, the more difficult it becomes to manage. Toriyama in his seminal Dragon Ball presented training and power-levels flawlessly—until the Frieze saga when it became an embarrassment.   Naruto pre-time skip was decent, but once you have a new character every twenty panels or so introduced as “legendary” and dealt with easily you can’t help but lose trust in the mangaka. Bleach has been an embarrassment in this department from the beginning, although the anime adaptation finds redemption in humor.

What is it that distinguishes good power-level management from the poor? I think an examination of the three manga I have read which deal with it best will illuminate this issue. These are : Hunter x Hunter, Black Cat and One Piece.

Something all three manga have in common is that they set the bar for power levels high from the first few chapters. For most of Hunter x Hunter Netero is the strongest character we’re introduced to. In One Piece Shanks is introduced or alluded to in the first chapter. Whitebeard, Mihawk, Doflamingo, and Blackbeard are presented relatively early also.  Train never really loses his standing as the strongest character in Black Cat. In an effective reversal of the traditional shonen formula, it’s the evil characters who power themselves up.

Conversely, in Naruto, Orochimaru easily dispatches the third Hokage, who in turn is easily dispatched by Sasuke. Kakashi, who had the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in the history of manga, has looked relatively useless for most of the series.  Every character introduced in the first 250 chapters of Dragon Ball, with the exception of Goku, can be killed with the flick of a finger from any of the major antagonists later on. Bleach solves problems of tension by introducing new mutations, or power-ups, a cheap trick Dragon Ball used way too much in its final throes.

Something else that One Piece and Hunter x Hunter have in common, but which Black Cat doesn’t need, is that their protagonists are seen from the beginning to have phenomenal potential, which doesn’t result from some mysterious gift, but is rather a requisite for their lust for adventure to be fulfilled. Luffy and his crew need to be strong to survive in the New World, while Gon and Killua need strength to keep on following their adventures as hunters. Not only does this make their increase in strength a gradual affair, it also gives a believable, and frankly inspiring motive behind their training.

The impetus for strength development in the other mangas is “saving the World,” which after a while becomes boring, and doesn’t allow readers to experience the joy of their favorite character becoming stronger.   It took almost six hundred chapters (including a 2 year Timeskip) to see Luffy join the ranks of the World’s strongest pirates, but when he gets there you can bask in that realization.  Watching Naruto power up from his clone training makes me feel cheated.

A final measure, which very few mangas remember to include, but I consider extremely important, is to have a second major character (which is not an antagonist) to compare the main character to. In the case of One Piece, this is Zoro while in Hunter x Hunter it is Killua. Despite who your preferred character is, there is zero textual evidence to suggest that Luffy or Gon are stronger than their counterparts. In fact, their fighting styles and personalities are so different, that when you witness their simultaneous growth you’re more inclined to believe it.

No Apologies to Coelho:

I tend to regard the motives of figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as sinister. It’s not because I am overtly protective of religious institutions. In fact, this feeling extends itself to national television preachers who claim they have the right interpretation of the Bible. Religion, at the personal level, forms the basis of an entire world view and to convince someone they should give up their own is as ridiculous, and futile, as a Spartan appearing from the past and trying to convince a parent to leave their sickly child to die.

It is with some trepidation, then, that I approach this “take down” of Coelho. After all, millions of people have read his books. Many more find inspiration in his quotes. His six million twitter followers feel that he can dish out wisdom in under 140 characters. This then, is not an attack on his unimpressive literary output but in his message. This is because I’m convinced that types like Coelho are a malicious influence on the soul and overall personal development. They take many forms. Some of them write novels, other self-help books; a few host television shows and others are athletes or partake in some other form of entertainment, but they all say “Hey I achieved success by having faith in myself, and if you have faith in yourself, faith that you will possess from acquiring my product, you can achieve anything you want too!”

These people are quotable, and as someone who at one time relied on quotes to find solace or inspiration, I think I’m well-equipped to comment on their effect.  To begin with they’re ephemeral.  Moreover they’re untrue. It is a well-establish fact that every truism can be reversed (or negated) and still ring true. But worst of all they cater to the trappings of our own personal logic. This is problematic because in moments when life isn’t going out the way we planned it to, it’s necessary to view things in a different light. Quotes give you the impression that you’re doing this, while in fact they ‘re only reinforcing this mental state you’re in, which obviously hasn’t worked, if not you would be happy to begin with and would not need a quote.

If high literature forces you to reexamine your life, it does so not by showing you a linear narrative of how to live it. Instead, it specifically details just how difficult life can be to figure out, but in doing so it gives you a language with which to examine it.  Finding out the right way to live is a hard task that requires asking the right questions. Great novels give you the words to ask the right question, but they do not try to answer it for you. The only thing Coelho tries to do is give you the answer to life in a string of borrowed phrases.

Review: The Wire

Television shows work by building expectations and then meeting them. Whether the final product is worthwhile or not depends on execution. Actors have to be convincing, writers have to be believable and directors have to make sure that they focus on the right things. The success of this approach in terms of creative output is mixed.

Relationship and love oriented television shows have overused their formula of predictability to the point that it is boring (does anyone watching New Girl doubt that Jess and Jake will end up together?) While shows like Breaking Bad need to rely on a certain level of predictability for the intensity of the character development arc to be bearable (at a psychological level. The only serious fault I see in Breaking Bad is their HORRIBLE Spanish accents. To someone who doesn’t speak Spanish as a first language it may go by unnoticed, but it is seriously uncomfortable to listen to Fring talking in Spanish. In the case where a Cuban is used to play the role of a Mexican, the effect is as jarring as trying to pass off someone with an unaltered American accent as an Englishman.)

The Wire, however, does away with building expectations. Their approach reminds one of Stendhal’s dictum that a novel should “be mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. “
In The Wire storylines are dropped, or often only hinted at. Major characters die, others commit crimes. Some crimes are punished and others are not. When a character does something you expect him to do, you believe they do it because the show has convinced you that this is the type of decision a person like this would make. Omar returning from Puerto Rico was expected not for the purpose of a plot (it, in fact, does nothing for the plot), but because you trust his integrity. The entire second season hints at some future developments, but for the most could be completely removed and you wouldn’t notice a discontinuation.

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t explore themes with the intent of giving a statement, but these are for the most part themes everyone knows beforehand, and honestly they are some of the weaker moments in the show. Everyone knows being a public school teacher is hard and that the schools and underfunded. Everyone knows that the business of selling drugs is violent and everyone knows that shooting up heroin is bad for you.

Where The Wire excels is in convincing you that their dozens of characters are really the way they are. No actor, not matter how unimportant the part, gives the impression that they’re only filling in a role for the sake of plot continuation. This, combined with the introduction of a setting that is so foreign (at least to someone like me), make The Wire an excellently executed television show worth watching.

Film Review: Chronicle

There are some (but very few) spoilers. I don’t think I write anything which isn’t included in previews.

I tend to dismiss claims that some movies (or novels or songs. Plays might be an exception.) can be more thought provoking than others, or worse yet, that they have a “good message.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t any excellently executed movies, but serious thought requires silent meditation, something which is impossible when the bulk of your attention is dedicated to receiving information.  In fact, because movies are an agglomeration of so many different components, the only themes we tend to notice are those which preoccupy us at the moment.  Too often you’ll watch a movie a second time to find important scenes that simply didn’t register the first time. People often prescribe these situations to excellent productions, but the truth is that re-watching a bad movie will lead to the same realization. The only exception is that you’re much less like to watch a movie you disliked a second time, but if you apply serious thought to a film, whether good or bad, after having watched it, you’re bound to reach personally profound conclusions.

What people should say, then, is that a film is excellently executed, and because it is excellent it leads them to reconsider its themes. (There are cases in which confusing films are mistakenly taken to be profound, but that’s another case entirely).

Chronicle is an excellent movie, so people who watch it are bound to claim it is thought provoking.  To their credit, the film consciously engages in provoking thought as testified by its cinematography. Moreover, within the first minutes of the film we hear Matt, Andrew’s cousin, quoting Schopenhauer. But the purpose of the camera work is obvious (although excellent for the development of the storyline), and a Schopenhauer quote is useless out of context.

The first three things we’re shown is the abuse Andrew has to endure from his father, how he has to take care of a sick mother and Andrew’s decision to videotape his life. By the time the movie has undergone its first fifteen minutes, it’s clear that the overarching theme of the movie is control. The camera gives him the illusion of control to Andrew by providing a buffer to a world where he has to endure living with an abusive father, a dying mother, and bullying in school.

After acquiring telekinesis, Andrew still keeps filming however, even in occasions where it is obviously inappropriate. By now, however, the camera instead of serving as a buffer, serves as a manifestations of Andrew’s sense of superiority. He watches other people, instead of interacting, because he is above them. This theme has been explored countless times in superhero movies.  What makes Chronicle different from every other movie is its brilliant execution. Andrew’s delineation doesn’t surprise us without being obvious, the acting is flawless, and the major characters, including Andrew, are likable.  It’s become one of my favorite movies and it’s definitely worth watching.

An Apology for Taste

In my ideal world I would find every manifestation of reality interesting at all times and I would dedicate myself to pursuing these infinite avenues to pleasure. In such a world disappointment wouldn’t exist and rejection would only signify an opportunity to try something different.  But wishing for this world is like a heroin addict wishing for an infinite supply of fix and a constitution strong enough to withstand it.

For good or for ill neither of these two worlds exists. Instead we’re forced to adhere to the law of diminishing returns, which too often makes it seem like the life we’ve led until now is as good as it will ever get. At the same time, we’re only given a limited amount of time to find out exactly what those things that interest us—the things that give us pleasure–are.

This is problematic. Not having a constant source of pleasure or entertainment, something to take your mind off yourself, can make living in the 21st century an uncomfortable experience. When you don’t have to worry about procuring nourishment or whether another tribe will try to invade your own you’re left with a lot of time to think, and thinking can be extremely uncomfortable (in an existential sense). The reason for this is probably evolutionary: in terms of survival, thinking negative thoughts is beneficial since it will force you to look for a solution to whatever problem you may face .

The way our society has addressed this problem is through social media and entertainment. Imagine how unbearable the world today would be without television, internet or video games. Without a way to transmit information and media over large distances countless people would be left bored and in chronic bouts of depression.

There’s a problem behind all of these methods of tackling boredom, however. They’re built to target our pleasure center and so they don’t carry the rewards our brain created pleasure for in the first place. Achieving first place in your fantasy football team may give you a similar pleasure to winning a football game, but you don’t get any of the benefits. Watching the history channel gives you the pleasure of learning without actually learning anything and so on.

My task in this blog will be to examine forms of entertainment (which a special emphasis on literature on my part) and determine whether they are worth the time.  My method of discrimination is obviously personal and I do not make any claims to be speaking for anyone other than myself. But this blog isn’t merely for me. It’s for that enormous silent majority who have opinions, but can never find themselves in a specific camp. For readers who can admit to enjoying Harry Potter, without calling J.K Rowling the greatest writer of the century (and having a specific reason for doing so, instead of just accepting it as a fact because it is children’s literature). This silent majority looks at life on an individual basis, and I want to offer an example of someone who tries to do it with a certain level of rigor.

I should state that I have zero technical expertise on any of the subjects I will be discussing. I also do not possess Borges’s seemingly endless erudition. Instead my arguments will be based on a sort of intuition of logic. There are downsides to this method, but I would to invite anyone reading this to consider that Facts are a very efficient way of hiding the truth. It is also important to remember that the laws of physics and atomic theory were developed from intuition. Democritus anticipated modern atomic theory from pure speculation. That he did was useless for 2200 years of course, but it’s interesting to note the power of intuition and speculation. Somewhere out there compiled in the thousands of years of human history, and the billions of lives lived exists the key to the Good. Ultimately, my posts in this blog will be me speculating on it.