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you, the living

Reviewing Roy Andersson's new film, 'You, the Living' ('Du Levande'), inevitably means comparing it to his previous masterpiece 'Songs from the Second Floor'. To a large extent they are companion pieces, both in the same formalist style of carefully constructed and loosely interconnected tableaux, and both sharing the same absurd, apocalyptic universe that one reviewer described as "tatty rooms and seedy bars and gloomy streets, whose endlessly receding angles make them look like chambers of some refrigerated hell."

The tone of 'You, the Living', however, is slightly lighter, just as the stylistic formalism is slightly loosened. (In a number of scenes the camera moves, breaking the static viewpoint for a more fluid perspective.) The opening quote by Goethe, from which the title is taken, points to the different approach Andersson is taking:

Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.
You, the Living - 1

To be sure, the people that inhabit Andersson's "refrigerated hell" are still pale, sighing creatures resigned to their burdensome lives, trapped in endless, trivial routines with just barely enough energy to complain. They're not just having a bad day, they're having a bad life, so utterly pathetic it becomes funny in a wry sort of way. For example, there's the bitter psychiatrist who arrives at work to find the elevator full of patients on their way to see him. So he has to take the stairs, and when he finally arrives at his office, panting and sweating, all his patients are already waiting for him expectantly. All he can do is rant about all those people demanding happiness of him. Nowadays he doesn't even try any more, he just prescribes heavy medication.

But amid all this quiet desperation, Andersson has given his characters two glimpes of how to "be pleased": through music and through dreams. Many of the characters are seen singing and making music, notably a group of men in a brass band, who play at funerals and in a royal marching band. In one scene, they are rehearsing while a thunderstorm rages outside, and for a moment they manage to create their own universe, shutting out the misery with their music.

You, the Living - 2

And three characters narrate their dreams. Yes, two of those are nightmares, absurd scenes involving electric chairs and bombers appearing over the city, only barely more absurd than the waking world. (Significantly, the dream sequences are stylistically indistinguishable from the rest of the film. Who knows whether some of the other scenes might not be dreams, too?) But there is one sweet dream, of a girl who marries the guitar player she adores. Cheered on by a large crowd outside, the newlyweds go off on their honeymoon in a moving house (in her dream, their house moves like a train).

However fleeting and absurd, the scene proves that an escape in dreaming is at least possible. In Andersson's gloomy universe, that's a great consolation.

dutch milk wood

One of the towering figures in Dutch (or Flemish, as some would insist) literature, Hugo Claus left a huge oeuvre of novels, plays and poetry. He was also a prolific translator, and one of his most lasting achievements must be his Dutch version of Dylan Thomas' famous (radio) play 'Under Milk Wood'.

In 'Onder het Melkwoud' Claus managed to adapt Thomas' feverish, bible-black, fishingboat-bobbing poetry to Dutch, conveying the unique wavelike cadence of the original and finding inventive equivalents for its exuberant, dreamlike imagery. In short, Claus proved that the Dutch language can in fact be just as flexible and playful as English.

Here's a sample from the Dutch version:

Om te beginnen bij het begin:

Het is lente, nacht zonder maan in de kleine stad, zonder ster en bijbelzwart, de stille straten en het gekromde vrijers- en konijnenwoud hinken onzichtbaar naar de sleezwarte, trage, zwarte, kraaizwarte, sloepdobberende zee. De huizen zijn blind als mollen (hoewel mollen scherp zien vannacht in de wroetende fluwelen vallei) of blind als Kapitein Kat daar in het gedempte ruim bij de pomp en de dorpsklok, de winkels in de rouw, het huis van het Nutsgebouw in weduwendracht. En alle mensen in de gewiegde en verstomde stad liggen nu te slapen.

Stil! De babies slapen, de boeren, de vissers, de handelaars en gepensioneerden, schoenlapper, schoolmeester, postbode en herbergier, de lijkbidder en de minnares, dronkelap, naaister, predikant, politieman, de zwempotige mosselwijven en zindelijke huisvrouwen. Jonge meisjes liggen zachtgebed of glijden in haar dromen met ringen en uitzet, met glimwormen als bruidsmeisjes in de zijbeuken van het orgelspelend woud. De jongens dromen zondig of van de bokkende veefokkers van de nacht en de zeeroversdolle zee. En de antracieten beelden der paarden slapen in het veld, en de koeien in de stallen en de honden op het natgeneusd erf; en de katten dutten in de schuine hoeken of glijden heimelijk, jachtig en schichtig op de grote wolk der daken.


U alleen kunt de huizen horen slapen in de straten in de trage, diepzouten en stilzwarte, omzwachtelde nacht. U alleen kunt in de verdonkerde slaapkamers zien: de kammen en de rokken over de stoel, de kannen en de kommen, het glas met de tanden, 'Gij zult niet' aan de wand en de vergelende Kijk-naar-het-vogeltje portretten der doden. U alleen kunt horen en zien achter de ogen der slapers, de bewegingen en landen en doolhoven en kleuren en ontzetting en regenbogen en wijsjes en wensen en vlucht en val en wanhoop en de grote zeeën van hun dromen. Van waar u bent kunt u hun dromen horen.

See also this Parool review (in Dutch).

The full English text is online, along with an audio version (recorded by the BBC in 1963), at undermilkwood.net.


Is your brand in God's good books?

Some hilarious satire for Easter Sunday: Christvertising.com, which had many in the American blogosphere wondering whether it was real or not, until the Washington Post confirmed it as a spoof.

flags in a vacuum

There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.

- Arthur C. Clarke, who defined serious science-fiction with such books as '2001: A Space Odyssey' (developed in parallel with the film), 'Childhood's End' and many others.

Wired has a 1993 interview with Clarke.

Via Quote of the Day.


Ophelia - John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais' 'Ophelia' is currently on display at the Van Gogh Museum. Based on the scene in 'Hamlet' of Ophelia drowning (which Shakespeare left open for interpretation as an accident or suicide), the painting depicts the moment just before her death, when she floats down the river singing.

...Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indu'd
Unto that element...

(See here for the rest of the passage.)

A founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais infused his paintings with an intense love of nature in all its luscious detail, and he had a great eye for dramatic moments. In a time when photography was being invented, Millais sought images that would do more than just capture reality; they would have to tell a story. (Many of his paintings are based on stories or poems, notably by Tennyson.)

With these aims, Millais created some very powerful and 'telling' portraits, especially of women, as well as some beautiful, expressive landscapes. Yet it's easy to see why 'Ophelia' is his most famous work, as it seems somehow to combine the best elements of all his other work.

The Tate Britain website has an in-depth section on the painting's history and symbolism. (Yes, every single flower has symbolic meaning; e.g. orchids as "dead men's fingers".)

the digital universe

For some truly astronomical figures, check 'The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe', an annual white paper by IDC, sponsored by EMC. According to their estimates, the digital universe in 2007 was 281 exabytes (281 billion gigabytes). In 2011 it is projected to have grown to 1.8 zettabytes (1800 exabytes).

One rather scary point from the study is worth contemplating:

Of that portion of the digital universe created by individuals, less than half can be accounted for by user activities - pictures taken, phone calls made, emails sent - while the rest constitutes a digital "shadow" - surveillance photos, Web search histories, financial transaction journals, mailing lists, and so on.

In other words, the trail we leave involuntarily in the digital universe - information about us - is now larger than the information we deliberately create.

Via Marketingfacts.

the jewel stair's grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn

- Rihaku (Li Po)

Note: Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of the weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but soaks her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

The translation and note are by Ezra Pound, from his 1915 volume 'Cathay', a series of translations - or rather recreations - from classic Chinese poets. Pound described his translations as "for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga." (Rihaku is the Japanese name for Li Po.)

Eliot Weinberger, in '19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei' (see previous post), credited Pound for creating "a new poetry in English drawn from what was unique to the Chinese."

Pound's genius was the discovery of the living matter, the force, of the Chinese poem - what he called "the news that stays news" through the centuries. This living matter functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations which are relatives, not clones, of the original. The relationship between original and translation is parent-child.

The complete text of 'Cathay', as well as sound recordings, can be found here.

deer park

Just four lines long, the ancient Chinese poem 'Deer Park', by Buddhist poet Wang Wei, has inspired poets and translators through the ages. Eliot Weinberger's '19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei' collects nineteen different translations in English, Spanish and French, along with commentary by Weinberger and Octavio Paz. Reading so many variatons of one text, without being able to access the original directly, has a curiously meditative effect, at once enlightening and humbling, as the 'real' meaning of the poem remains elusive. It also makes this volume an excellent introduction into the subtle, deeply religious thought behind this eighth century poem.

Deer Park - Wang Wei

The poem's form is simplicity itself: a quatrain of five characters each, making 22 characters in total (including the title). Each character represents a word or concept; e.g. the two title characters are for 'deer' and 'park', or 'grove'. (The title probably refers to the Deer Park where Gautama Buddha held his first sermon.) A character-by-character translation of the poem looks something like this:

Empty mountain not see people
Only hear people talk sound
Return brightness enter deep forest
Again shine green moss upon.

The "brightness" in line three may also mean "shadows". And that's where the difficulties of interpretation start. Wang Wei's Chinese is not only archaic, it is also part of a language and literary tradition that is completely different from Western poetry. Stripped of articles, tenses and pronouns (there is not even a narrator), Chinese poetry is more like a string of concepts or images, which can be rhymed or juxtaposed. For instance, the "not see people" in the first line mirrors the "hear people" in the second line (as seen in the repetition of the character for 'people' or 'person'). As Weinberger comments, "Chinese poetry, like all ancient poetries, is based on parallelism: the dual (yin-yang) nature of the universe."

One of the few translations to render this fluently in English is the one by Burton Watson, acclaimed by Weinberger as one of the closest to the original in form and spirit:

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

(Note that Watson has managed to use only 24 words - six per line - for the original 20 characters.)

However, while the first couplet is relatively straightforward, the second leaves a lot more to the translator's (and reader's) imagination. Beyond the fact that there's more parrallelism going on ("brightness" vs. "dark forest", "return" and "again"), its meaning remains rather obscure. Octavio Paz supplies a key to understanding the poem's ending:

...for Wang Wei the light of the setting sun had a very precise meaning. An allusion to the Amida Buddha: at the end of the afternoon the adept meditates and, like the moss in the forest, receives illumination. Poetry prefectly objective, impersonal, far from the mysticism of a St. John of the Cross, but no less authentic or profound than that of the Spanish poet. Transformation of man and nature before the divine light, although in a sense inverse to that of Western tradition. In place of the humanization of the world that surrounds us, the Oriental spirit is impregnated with the objectivity, passivity and impersonality of the trees, grass and rocks, so that, impersonally, it receives the impartial light of a revelation that is also impersonal.

Or in Weinberger's final analysis of the poem:

An endless series of negations: The mountain seems empty (without people) because no one's in sight. But people are heard, so the mountain is not empty. But the mountain is empty because it is an illusion. The light from the Western Paradise, the light called shadow falls.

Most of the translations can be found here; a detailed analysis here.

Via Crystalpunk, who also gives Weinberger's preface.

the god necessity

As we look back through the religious conceptions of human nature - and indeed we need not look so very far back because the same doctrine can be found in Freud - it becomes crystal clear that any doctrine of the innate depravity of man or any maligning of his animal nature very easily leads to some extra-human interpretation of goodness, saintliness, virtue, self-sacrifice, altruism, etc. If they can't be explained from within human nature - and explained they must be - then they must be explained from outside of human nature. The worse man is, the poorer a thing he is conceived to be, the more necessary becomes a god.

- Abraham Maslow, from 'Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences' (1964)