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le grand content

Le Grand Content examines the omnipresent Powerpoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential. Intersections and diagrams are assembled to form a grand 'association-chain-massacre', which challenges itself to answer all questions of the universe and some more. Of course, it totally fails this assignment, but in its failure it still manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters.


old joy

Kelly Reichardt's 'Old Joy' is a subtle meditation on the transience of friendship and youthful ideals. So subtle, in fact, that most of its underlying drama remains implied.

Old Joy - 1

On a weekend camping trip, two old friends discover how much their lives have diverged. Mark (Daniel London) has become a hard-working citizen, married and about to be a father, while Kurt (Will Oldham) is an old hippie still shunning responsibility. Hiking through the woods provides them with an activity and a mutual goal, but at night by the campfire their conversation is awkward and they can't seem to find common ground.

Old Joy - 2

The next day they bathe and relax in the mountain hot springs, but the awkwardness doesn't leave them. Very little happens, but by the end we realize they have drifted too far apart and something essential has been irretrievably lost.

Beautifully shot in the Oregon mountains, with a wistful soundtrack by Yo La Tengo, 'Old Joy' captures a mood of quiet melancholy and lets it speak for itself. Only once is it put into words, when Kurt quotes an old Chinese proverb saying:

Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.

narziss & goldmund

Adapting Herman Hesse's novel 'Narcissus and Goldmund' to the theatre poses a difficult challenge. Hesse's novel, set in Medieval Germany, sets up a juxtaposition of archetypal characters: Narcissus the cerebral, ascetic scholar, and Goldmund the restless, sensual artist. Thematically, they embody Nietzsche's theory of the Apollonian versus Dionysian.

Meeting in the monastery as young boys, Narcissus and Goldmund become friends, in spite of (or precisely because) they recognize their opposites in each other. While Narcissus devotes himself to monastery life, Goldmund sets out on a wandering life of amorous adventures, immersing himself fully in worldly pleasures and pains.

It is not until many years later that, both greatly changed, they meet again and reflect on the vastly different lives they have led. And they find that, ultimately, there is a kind of synthesis to their opposites. As Narcissus puts it:

You should not envy me, Goldmund. There is no peace of the sort you imagine. Oh, there is peace of course, but not anything that lives within us constantly and never leaves us. There is only the peace that must be won again and again, each new day of our lives. You don't see my fight, you don't know my struggles as Abbot, my struggles in the prayer cell. A good thing you don't. You only see that I am less subject to moods than you, and you take that for peace. But my life is struggle; it is struggle and sacrifice like every decent life; like yours, too.
Narziss & Goldmund

The Toneelschuur production 'Narziss & Goldmund' has managed to find theatrical devices to communicate the essence of this difficult story. Though the try-out still had some hiccups, it easily kept the audience's interest for its full two hours duration.

They play is acted by three actors who shift in and out of the different roles. Though for most of the time there is one Narcissus and one Goldmund, all three seem to wrestle with the same problems of the duality of spirit and flesh. In a sense, the play is about actors trying to understand their roles. As they try them on to see which one fits best, it becomes a great visualization of the soul-searching at the heart of Hesse's novel.


As a start of the long overdue redesign of this blog, i'll be experimenting with adding tags to entries. So bear with potential bugs...

Tagging, as a form of adding metadata to web content, is part of the whole Web 2.0 thing and the growing obsession with catching the world in keywords. See, for example, Wordie and this Neural review. And for metadata ad absurdum, see this experiment by Kottke.

But then, tags might just be a more comprehensive way of navigating than the growing monthly archive list.

Update: It's a close race, but so far leads against (40 - 37 tags). Not entirely done though...

ship of fools

Jeroen Bosch - Ship of Fools

Jeroen Bosch' famous 'Ship of Fools', the medieval allegory of humans wasting their lives in idle pleasures.

Less widely known is that the custom of putting the insane on boats really existed in Western Europe. Foucault describes their function, both practical and highly symbolical, in his 'Madness and Civilization'.

On the one hand, we must not minimize its incontestable practical effectiveness: to hand a madman over to sailors was to be permanently sure he would not be prowling beneath the city walls; it made sure he would go far away; it made him a prisoner of his own departure. But water adds to this the dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools' boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks.

...symbol of knowledge, the tree (the forbidden tree, the tree of promised immortality and of sin), once planted in the heart of the earthly paradise, has been uprooted and now forms the mast of the Ship of Fools. [It] sails through a landscape of delights, where all is offered to desire, a sort of renewed paradise, since here man no longer knows either suffering or need, and yet he has not recovered his innocence.

the mahabharata

The Indian Mahabharata has been called the longest epic in the world. Spanning over 74.000 Sanskrit verses (about ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined!), it is one of the founding mythologies of Indian culture, with immense religious and philosophical breadth and depth. Though its vast and sprawling narrative probably grew over a long period of time, it was completed in its final form in the first century. Some events described in the story may date as far back as the 12th century BCE.

The Mahabharata had already been made into a popular television series in India, when Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière adapted the story, first into a nine hour play, and then into a five hour miniseries, from which in turn a cinema version was made. The series is an awesome introduction to the story, as long as you keep in mind it was adapted from a play (it has a bit of a stagey feel at times). With its timeless atmosphere, its careful and imaginative depiction of mythological events, and the great touch of having actors from all over the world portray the different characters, it is truly a world production.

Mahabharata - 01

Narrator of the story is the sage Vyasa, who documents events as well as participating in them. The beginning of the Mahabharata describes how Vyasa conceived the story in his head and asked Ganesha, master of wisdom, to act as scribe. Ganesha agreed, on the condition that Vyasa never pause in his dictation. Vyasa accepted, but with the counter-condition that Ganesha should first understand whatever Vyasa recited before writing it down. This way, Vyasa hoped to buy himself some time in formulating the verses.

The story itself centers around a great war between two opposing branches of a royal family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The family relations are incredibly complex, spanning multiple generations and including many divine origins. It all builds up to the point where it is inevitable that the virtuous Pandavas, five brothers who share one wife, the beautiful Draupadi, will have to battle the Kauravas for dominion of the realm. Even Dhritarashtra, the blind king, is unable to prevent war.

Mahabharata - 02

Both parties assemble vast armies, they stand ready on the battlefield, but then Arjuna, bravest of the Pandavas brothers, has doubts. How can he wage war on his own family, on people he has known since childhood? Here, on the very brink of war, the narrative pauses and the divine Krishna, Arjuna's chariot driver, teaches him about devotion to duty, without attachment or desire of reward. This is the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous section of the Mahabharata, and (roughly) the equivalent of the New Testament in Hinduism.

Prepare for war with peace in thy soul. Be in peace in pleasure and pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle. In this peace there is no sin.
Mahabharata - 03

The Pandavas finally win the war, but victory is bittersweet with so many dead. In the end, the Pandava brothers leave their kingdom behind and go on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, where one by one they pass to heaven.

Mahabharata Online has a complete translation as well as an excellent summary.

global literature

At the opening of the Winternachten literary festival in The Hague, Indian writer and critic Pankaj Mishra lectured on 'The Globalization of Literature, the Making of an Illusion.' Quite a mouthful, the title reflected his treatment of grand themes like Globalization and Literature (as capitalized entities) as well as his tone of urgent nostalgia.

The gist of it seemed to be that while all great literature is firmly rooted in a particular time, place and culture, it is now in danger of becoming one big, bland McLiterature, catering to the taste of a Western audience that can only digest Otherness in little stereotypical bites. As Mishra himself experienced when reading Flaubert in a small town in India, it takes effort to understand a work of art from an alien culture. Since effort is difficult to market, the current trend is easy exoticism, disregarding truthfulness.

It is fair to say that the average contemporary western reader does not have much knowledge of traditions and history separate from his own - and sometimes not even that. He or she tends to read books that entertain and inform without asking a deep commitment of intellectual and emotional energy. The French critic Roland Barthes may well have been describing such a selective consumer of literature when he spoke of the reader who 'wants to escape from history. It is a reader who wants to feel good about being who or what she is, and a knowledge of history - even one's own history - does not always cause one to feel good.'

Taking Salman Rushdie's latest novel 'Shalimar the Clown' as a case in point, its depiction of the Kashmir conflict is indeed flimsy, and probably inaccurate. And its delving into global terrorism, though fashionable, is hardly enlightening.

But then, Rushdie has been repeating his trick of the all-encompassing story for a long time now, with steadily less spectacular results. So maybe this is just not such a great novel, regardless of any trends. (Also, whether he succeeded or not, the theme of Rushdie's recent novels seems to be globalization itself, a new kind of reality defined precisely by its uprootedness.)

Moreover, Mishra's concern seems to have been recognized already: both last year's Booker Prize winner (Kiran Desai) and Nobel Prize winner (Orhan Pamuk) are very culturally particular and politically engaged writers.

His many examples did provide a nice reading list. Here's a couple of Indian ones:

a delicate balance

'Wankel Evenwicht', a Dutch rendition of Edward Albee's 'A Delicate Balance' by Carver and Onafhankelijk Toneel at the Toneelschuur, provided captivating acting all around. But it also proved the difficulty of getting the right balance (excuse the pun) between sarcastic wit and formal dialogue, painful drama and absurdist elements this play offers.

Though not quite as vicious as 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf', the play has a similar setup. It takes place entirely in the household of a long-married middle class couple, Tobias and Agnes, and unravels their fragile peace through outside forces. Buried deep beneath the surface of their placid lives, they are still struggling to come to grips with the death of their son. Living with them is Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire, who provides sarcastic commentary "from the sideline." And Julia, the couple's only daughter, is coming home from a failed marriage, her fourth.

All this promises to upset the delicate balance of this household, but the real blow comes when Harry and Edna, the couple's best friends, arrive unannounced. It takes a while before they explain their presence, and when they do the story takes an absurdist turn.

We were sitting home, all alone... and we got frightened. There was nothing... but we were very scared.

It becomes apparent that Harry and Edna intend to stay, and they take Julia's old room, making her homecoming seem more unwanted than ever. Yet however strange their behavior, Tobias and Agnes couldn't turn down their best friends, or could they? While Agnes comes to perceive Harry and Edna's invasion as a plague, Tobias will not forsake his best friends - even if it will ruin his family.

Things do unravel, of course, and a new balance needs to be found for all involved. It is Agnes, finally, who sums up the anxiety underlying all their problems.

Time happens, I suppose... to people. Everything becomes... too late, finally. You know it's going on... up on the hill; you can see the dust, and hear the cries, and the steel... but you wait; and time happens. When you do go... finally... there's nothing there... save rust; bones; and the wind.

la jetée

Chris Marker's famous ciné-roman (film-novel) 'La Jetée' (1962), only half an hour long and comprised almost entirely of black and white stills, remains one of the best science fiction films of all time. Compared to its remake, 'Twelve Monkeys', it is a wonder of simplicity, a profound meditation on time and memory.

La Jetée

Both the original French version (no subtitles) and the English version are at Google Video. (Via Kottke.)

Update: In place of the film, have a look at these beautiful stills gallery from the film.