A Film Review in Retrospect: Thelma and Louise

Once every two or three years I’m overtaken by the urge to watch Thelma and Louise, and yesterday was the occasion of the most recent re-watch. It’s a classic that never gets old and its philosophical dimensions are as relevant as ever, but as a student of philosophy I found the film resonating with me more deeply than on the previous three times I’ve seen it (2008, 2011 and 2013). All those times I watched the film in company; yesterday evening was the first time I saw it alone, and that may have been part the reason why my emotional reaction was so strong.

The film’s plot (SPOILER ALERT) is an affirmation of a nihilistic disposition according to which it is better to be dead than to vainly attempt leading a dignified life within a capitalist, heteropatriarchal domestic prison. The ending is a happy one because the protagonists escape the aforementioned prison; it is tragic because such a prison existed in the first place. Making it to Mexico and drinking margaritas by the sea is never an option because of the premise of the story-world–a society where all dominant forces are joined in the effort to eliminate or imprison the free spirit.

It would probably be impossible not to have an emotional reaction to the ending of Thelma and Louise but the strength with which it hit me last night was absolutely disproportionate. Of course I wasn’t just crying because two fictional women fail to escape to Mexico. I was simultaneously mourning for the state of the world that is so accurately reflected in this film’s story-world, one where the law is often not in the favour of a victim; where everyone’s personal freedom is limited; where those who guard the law have such excessive resources in their use that rebellion of those who disagree with the law is easily got rid of; a society where it sometimes really is better for the free-spirited individual to die than to conform.

Thelma and Louise are driven to their tragic ending because they are unfit for the society as it is. One could argue that the world is what it is and those unfit for it deserve to be eliminated; and perhaps it is so in natural ecosystems. That’s just basic Darwinism. However, civilised human society is not a natural ecosystem. It is a construct based on the values decided by the elite. Does the world not belong to the rest of us just as much? Not if you ask the elite, but that’s what they would think, wouldn’t they? We can pretend to live in a democratic society where everyone must act for the good of the group, but this is not true democracy since someone else got to decide long ago what is meant by “good” and what constitutes a good way to act. We’re brought up on these values and are given very few opportunities to critically reflect on them. Lacking the vocabulary to disagree, we’re left with a lingering sense that there is something wrong with the world and perhaps it should not exist at all; this drives us towards nihilism, the unproductive kind, the one Nietzsche tried so hard to overcome only to fail and to stay alive long enough to become its embodiment. We will also find that those around us who benefit from the world as it is will go to any lengths to convince us that there’s something wrong with us, not the world, and that we must either conform or disappear. But what if we refuse to do either, and liberate ourselves while articulating that we are living, breathing things who have just as much right to this world as any other being that ever lived and breathed, and should have just as much right to shape the world towards one that we’re capable of existing in? Thelma and Louise do this by taking the law into their own hands and defend their rights to exist in the world in their own way for as long as they can. This is why, on the other hand, the ending is also a happy one: they will neither conform or be silenced, and when the dominant forces get them in the end, they go out loudly, by their own choice, on their own terms; demonstrating in their final moments that even in a world such as this one there can be found at least occasional spaces and moments where the dominant forces cannot reach and the free spirit is allowed, if reluctantly and temporarily, to exist.

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A Poem: ‘Rewrite (For Leonora Carrington)’

Rewrite
For Leonora Carrington

Come over for dinner, sit at my table–
it’s a few years late, I know, but come over dead,
what little remains of your flesh hanging from yellowing bones.
I’ve always found the dead better company than the living.
Madness is welcome in this house, too; madness abounds in this house,
I for sure have lost my mind, scarred my skin and pulled my own hairs out
in its grip. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Self-harm,
mental hospital visits, mad visions? They’re things that happen to us,
not the locus of our creativity. That comes from elsewhere. We are whole.

But so what if they don’t see us, so what if they cast us off,
erase us from history, dismiss us as madwomen, so what? Here’s what:
it didn’t end with us and humans multiply, God forbid, there’ll be more
going crazy leaking ink, paint, blood and lust from their cunts.

Let us recreate each other in our respective arts: I’ll narrate you anew
and you may paint me surreal, inside out, not a breast or a face in sight
but all brains, bones, blood and guts.

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Celebrating the End of Summer and Keeping the Old Gods Alive

Before launching into a long (and possibly boring if it’s not your thing) philosophical monologue I’ll start with the interesting bit, i.e. Halloween celebrations. Tomorrow night I’ll be celebrating in a most traditional, pagan fashion around a bonfire in the big field behind Vauxhall station. It looks absolutely amazing and it’s all free!

firefestivalposter

To the monologue. The best part of formally studying Philosophy is coming across moments in canonical philosophical literature where an established thinker wonderfully puts into words something you’ve always thought but couldn’t express – or even when you did, you were dismissed because you’re not an established thinker. Now you can write that thing you always thought in an essay and be able to back it up with a footnote. You can also keep up hopes that once you’ve developed the thing further and had more original thoughts on it, someone will financially support you getting a PhD on the subject and some day you will publish the thing and become an established thinker yourself. I had plenty of these “yes someone said it” moments when reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s collaborative work Dialectic of Enlightenment. Reading this wonderful book is, for me, an affirmation of the validity of my thoughts and feelings perhaps even more so than reading Being and Nothingness and that’s saying something (nothing personal, J-P, you’re still my homie).

The thing I’ve always thought, but never really found the right way to express or anyone to give a crap about, is that being rational and scientific probably isn’t the only way to approach the world. I’m fascinated by the supernatural, am curious about the things people imagine in order to explain the world around us, and madly in love with folklore and fairytales. Quite radically, I believe these can be as important as empirical science in understanding life. It’s radical because, as my new friend Max argues in The Eclipse of Reason, the value of being rational is simply not to be disputed. It’s the ultimate sacred. It’s…kind of what the Judeo-Christian God was in the Middle Ages.

I’m not pro-religion in any way; I wholly disagree with being homophobic or banning abortions because something was written in a book six thousand years ago. I understand the scientific method and why medical doctors are so annoyed about homeopathy. My case is philosophical, not anti- or pseudoscientific, and most importantly, not a case for abandoning rational science in places where it’s needed; for example, we can all probably agree that a fever is lowered more efficiently with paracetamol than by making a sacrifice to the fire gods. In fact, for sake of analogy, my case is to suggest that it can be a good idea to take paracetamol AND to pray to the fire gods. Metaphorically speaking.

In the Dialectic, Adorno and Horkheimer philosophically argue that the Enlightenment project has the exact same goal as myth and religion: to explain the world around us. To be purely philosophical, the result is the same. The seeker arrives at an explanation that helps them understand life a little better, but isn’t perhaps completely satisfying. The seeker proceeds with their daily life in light of the new piece of information and makes choices in the light of it; and they must, because the multitude of choice in life is overwhelming and without an explanation for why things are the way they are or what is a better thing to do than another, the person would be crushed under a wave of existential anguish and possibly lose their will to live altogether (trust me, I know a thing or two about anguish).  For example, why is it light and warm for part of the year and dark and cold for the other part? We know it’s because of the Earth’s axis being in a certain angle. The ancient Celts knew it was because there were two worlds, and there had to be a winter in this world  so there could be summer in the Otherworld, and vice versa. An Enlightenment thinker would look at the previous two sentences and say with complete certainty that the first one is the truth and the second one is a silly folklore belief and anyone who still thinks that is an idiot. But a budding philosopher such as myself might see two different ways of seeing the world: one materialistic, one idealistic. One possible to prove empirically, one that could or could not be the case but could never be proven. Two explanations that are not in any way, even when examined with the strictest logic, mutually exclusive. The first is rational, the second irrational – but if Rational is the last remaining sacred in our secularised world, is it not the task of the critically thinking, inquiring mind to dare to challenge it on occasion? A philosopher would ask, what is the truth anyway? Can there be a statement which has always been and will always be, in all situations, indisputably true? This budding philosopher has always thought that the universe is too vast for it to be possible that there is a simple explanation for all its phenomena, and that sometimes two seemingly opposite statements can be equally valid – perhaps one is true on one occasion and the other on a different occasion. There might even be a time when a fever won’t lift after taking paracetamol but disappears as soon as the fire gods hear the prayers, and it will never be possible to know if the fire gods did it, if it was a placebo effect, or if the paracetamol just took a little longer to kick in for some reason – but perhaps right now nobody will give a crap about the truth because all that matters is that the fever is gone. (Metaphorically speaking.)

And sometimes it’s fun to entertain old beliefs for the sake of tradition, which is what this time of year is all about. Lately I’ve been exercising my existential freedom by pretending I’m living in the 1800s – ignoring the nearby Lidl and buying all my food in Kingston town’s ancient market, and going for long walks in the countryside. My Halloween celebrations will follow in a similar fashion, and I willingly give up expensive drinks and ruining my hard-worked-for costume in a sweaty nightclub in favour of a storytelling night around a bonfire and an All Saints Day mass in a medieval church. I’m not bothering with these silly contemporary costumes either, but might conceal my identity in 19th-century masquerade style, to protect myself from whatever unfriendly spirits might arise as the veil between the worlds lifts…

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Stringing Words Together Through Sleepless Nights

I became a nighttime writer over the summer. I spent days staring at empty word documents, or staring out the window, melancholy and inadequate feelings pounding in my head and stopping anything decent from coming out onto the page. But after dark the words were forming again. Inspiration would strike at most inconvenient places: in the nightclub, forcing me to leave the dancefloor mid-song to look for a pen and a piece of paper; while cycling back from a friend’s place, having to repeat the piece of text in my head for the rest of the journey so I’d remember it when I got home; or, proverbially, just when falling asleep and too far in to be able to turn on the light and write anything down. As these scenarios suggest, it was not the most practical pattern of inspiration and I didn’t bring very many pieces to completion. I also spent much of daytime with manual tasks, depleted of intellectual challenge and speaking a language other than the one I write in, so it’s no surprise the words I wanted weren’t always there at the right time.

Then the summer ended, I returned to the UK, and began to reconstruct my social life one lunch date at a time. I’ve started my Master’s degree, met wonderful new people and drank lots of wine at post-evening seminar receptions. Learnt new words from lectures and set texts, bought poetry books, attended launches and readings. My main goal during the summer was to get my life together, improve my health and lose the extra weight I’d gained while studying in London (and am happy to be able to say I’m back in a healthy weight now, after several months of daily cycling and wheat-free diet). It was all very positive and required, but life also became a little too ordered. When I had enough sleep, ate healthy food and drank hardly any wine, I felt happy, balanced and organised. And utterly uncreative. Now I’m swiftly changing from the state of absolute boredom and loneliness on some days to being fully booked on others; I’m confused, anguished and occasionally hungover; I have many new projects, goals and friendships under way all at once. I’m anything but organised, a bit worried about how I’ll get everything done and make ends meet, and I’m having a lot of feelings; in other words, I’ve allowed my life to tumble into a little bit of a chaos.

And now the text is flowing off my keyboard like blood from an open wound. Only this afternoon I earnestly cried tears of joy when I realised I was still capable of writing sentences I was happy with. I’ve been at my laptop three days straight, continuing a story I started aged 19 and was a bit freaked out to find I’m becoming a lot like a character I invented all those years ago – it’s one of those instances of life imitating art. I’m pouring those confusing and agonising feelings onto the page in the form of a story of a woman living an exaggerated version of my life. I don’t know where the story’s going, what the protagonist does for a living, or what role each character plays – but I don’t mind. So far it’s an exercise in stringing words together, and the pleasure I experience after each sentence on the screen that eloquently expresses the abstract thought in my head is worth all the confusion, all the anguish, all the mess and the hangovers the creative process has been dependent on.

And I’m thrilled to announce I’ll be reading fragments from my story in progress at a reading at the Poetry Café. Unfinished is organised and hosted by Anouche Sherman and takes place on the 24th October at 7.30pm.  Click on the flyer below for all the details! The event is a celebration of unfinished work, a chance for writers and artists to showcase works in progress or pieces that may never be finished. What matters is not a completed work of art or a coherent story, but the enjoyment of the journey, and the pleasure of creation. Please come along if you’re free.

Unfinished

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Poetry at the Room – Tonight’s Readings

Saturday 3 October 2015

Poetry at The Room, 33 Holcombe Road, Tottenham Hale, N17 9AS (at 7.30) will feature a reading by James Byrne, Sarah Law, Kate Bingham and Anouche Sherman – hosted by Irina Jauhiainen.

(£5 entry plus donation for refreshment)

James Byrne

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James Byrne is a poet, editor, translator and Lecturer in poetry at Edge Hill University. His most recent poetry collections are White Coins (Arc Publications, England, 2015) and Everything Broken Up Dances, published by Tupelo Press (USA) also in 2015. Other collections include Blood/Sugar (Arc 2009) and Soapboxes, a pamphlet of political satires (KFS, 2014). He co-edited the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West (Arc, 2012, Northern Illinois University Press 2013) and Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, an anthology of poets under 35, published by Bloodaxe in 2009. Since 2002 he has edited The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine.

Sarah Law

Sarah Law

Sarah Law is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at London Metropolitan University. She has published five books of poetry, the latest of which explores eccentric medieval visionary Margery Kempe.

Kate Bingham

Kate Bingham

Kate Bingham’s third collection, Infragreen, is pubished by Seren. Quicksand Beach was short-listed for the Forward Prize, Best Collection 2006. Her poem ‘On Highgate Hill’ was short-listed for the Forward Prize, Best Single Poem 2010.

Anouche Sherman

Anouche Sherman

Anouche Sherman is a French-born poet, translator and multimedia artist. She’s had work published in French literary reviews and in various poetry magazines and blogs. She also organises and hosts thematic poetry and performance events at the Poetry Cafe (A Celebration of French Poetry In Translation, New Writings – New Voices, DADA is BAck, Inspired by Psychedelic Poetry). Her next event is ‘Unfinished: in praise of unfinished prose’ (24th October).

www.anouchesherman.com

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‘Terminator: Genisys’ – A Cross-disciplinary Film Review (Spoiler Alert)

The latest development of the iconic Terminator film series (Cameron 2015) has received a lot of criticism as well as praise for various reasons, all of which are mainly to do with the film itself, the production process or issues within the storyworld. I’ve done a lot of reading on it since seeing the film yesterday, and so far haven’t come across a piece addressing what to me was the most glaringly obvious aspect of the film: it was written with an important message, a lesson, in mind, and maybe the reason it’s not mentioned in every single review is that it was so obvious it’s not worth mentioning, but I’ve been on this bandwagon for quite a while now so it will naturally be the main focus of mine. I’m talking about the scene where Sarah Connor has just time-travelled from 1984 to 2017 (two years to go!) and looks around in horror as every single person is carrying and focusedly staring into a little screen which is about to be taken over by the baddie of the film series, Skynet, by the means of a new app Genisys (hence the film title). “It’s a Trojan horse,” she whispers.

I cannot possibly put into words how badly I wish the idea of almost everyone being obsessed with a little screen were nothing but a far-fetched Sci-Fi dystopia that would horrify the viewers as much as the character in the film. Unfortunately the scene doesn’t even make good Sci-Fi comedy, or work as a narrative device the way it’s probably intended to, because that’s what we see every day by just looking around in a public place. If we do look around, that is, as opposed to scrolling through our Twitter feeds to pass the time.

A life controlled by gadgets is a threat to humanity, even if a smartphone app never actually starts a nuclear war against us. Being online 24/7 reduces privacy and makes us vulnerable to crimes such as identity theft. Also it’s easier for totalitarians and bureaucrats to take over a world whose citizens are preoccupied with trending hashtags. Terminator: Genisys is an important reminder of this; this film has significance way beyond its CGI and internal logic (both of whose criticisms I kind of agree with, although I don’t know quite enough physics to be able to tell one way or the other if the quantum field business and alternative realities storyline was plausible).

In addition, the film is worth watching just to see a still very fit, silver fox Arnold Schwarzenegger fight his naked, younger self – that was very clever use of footage from the first film in the series, even if the outcome was a bit stiff and the editing rather visible. There were lots of car chases and explosions, which is fair enough, as most people don’t go to see Terminator films for the sake of the dialogue. An effort was made with cultural/temporal references in the scenes set in the 80s, and ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ by The Ramones played in the film so much I’m still analysing if its lyrics had some relevance to the story. The final scenes, with Skynet’s servers destroyed in a massive explosion and the visuals soon changing to a soothing, dumbphone-free rural landscape, are immensely satisfying for any anti-technologist. You might think I’m a hypocrite for writing this on a laptop and then posting a link on Twitter, but at least I’m doing it all on a PC which I don’t even turn on every day. Instead of a dumbphone I have a six-year-old Nokia which is likewise off for a majority of time. GOOD LUCK TRYING TO CORRUPT ME, SKYNET!

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On the Uses of Nostalgia

I’m writing a short story inspired by the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (SPOILER ALERT), one of whose main theme is nostalgia for eras gone by. The protagonist (of the film, not my story) imagines 1920s’ Paris as the Golden Age and aches with the feeling of alienation of being born in the wrong decade. He is magically transported back in time to his ideal era, and it is everything he dreamed of – except the woman he falls in love with is nostalgic for the Belle Epoque of the pre-war period, and she, given a further time travel -provided opportunity, chooses to stay there. The conclusion of the film is that each era has its sides and that it’s common for people in all times and places to long for something different.

The protagonist of my short story looks slightly further back, having visions of 1850s Paris – and although those visions are occasionally grotesque, and certainly true to the murkier aspects of the age such as poverty, syphilis and substandard indoor heating, the character feels the pull of that time so strongly she can hardly bear living in the present. This aspect of the character is completely based on the author: I, too, have felt for as long as I can remember that I belong to a different time. I don’t, however, have a particular Golden Age in mind, but the longing is for pretty much anything different. It is an escapist fantasy, a narrative about there being a world I do belong to, a story about a better time and place – a story I need to tell myself to go on living, because if I accepted that this world and this time are all there is, I would be forced to face up to my estrangement from the world and would inevitably fall deep into a nihilist despair.

Last time someone asked me which century I’d have liked to live in, I said 100,000 BC – the whole earth was subtropical back then so a loin cloth was about as much clothing as you needed. I have mornings when I resist being in the world so hard it takes me ten minutes to put on one sock, so naturally the idea of a near-nudist tribe is immensely attractive. I have previously written about my admittedly inaccurate ideal of Victorian England, but given a time machine, I wouldn’t say no to the Middle Ages, or the 1920s, or indeed the summer of 1968. Anything pre-smartphones would do, to be honest. (No offence intended if you’re reading this on a smartphone. Although that might not be possible as I have NFI how the site design for mobiles works.)

I saw Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe this week (awesome show, still on, highly recommended) and as gripping as the story was, there were a few moments when the speeches went on a bit during which I paid all my attention to the construction of the stage – it is incredibly accurately reconstructed, in both technical structure and appearance, from the original 1500s theatre. Standing in the yard would’ve felt like having gone back in time if it hadn’t been for the helicopter noises and people taking selfies; an amazing moment of nostalgia overall. Shakespeare’s time is one I wouldn’t particularly wish to travel back to as my student loan would mean a life sentence in debtors’ prison, but how amazing would it be if all entertainment was like that? Pay just a fiver for a standing ticket and stand in the yard among the other peasants, watching a live performance whose plot is complex enough to require a pre-21st Century attention span but has lots of bawdy humour in it to keep the audience bursting into laughter, and then head to the nearest pub for a cheap pint. No more of this paying £50 to see a play in which nothing happens and then not being able to afford a glass of wine in the theatre bar (a Drama tutor of mine once said the definition of “middle class” is being able to have a drink at the Royal Court). Pubs and small theatres are being wiped out at a horrifying rate and theatre-goers will soon be divided into those who drink cocktails in theatre bars and pretentiously discuss the quality of the stage design, and those who watch Popcorn Time on their laptops and drink cheap vodka straight from the bottle.

Politically, this is a difficult time for the artists and writers in the UK – right-wing governments don’t tend to be supportive of our kind, and most people I know in this country are furious and depressed about the recent election. As worrying as it is that the right is rising all over Europe, my political tendencies are beginning to shift from considering socialism the lesser evil and leaning towards peaceful anarchy. No government, left or right, will create a world everyone feels they belong to as long as corporations hold all the power, so why do we place so much hope on governments? The tax people will never go after Amazon. No one who has money or power will willingly share it. So my suggestion is that we do what we can with what we’ve got. Blaming the government for the world being crap is waste of energy; longing for a Golden Age or the good old times is useless until time travel is invented; the nihilist despair is the most realistic option but rather unpleasant, and I say that from a lot of personal experience.We can create our own reality: self-sufficient communities and ecovillages are popping up all over the world, and while the change won’t happen overnight or be available to everyone in its current form, it will show way and we can, little by little, turn our backs on the government and the corporations and lean on each other, instead.

The best thing to do when the world feels unwelcoming and the nihilism rears its head is to indulge shamelessly in those nostalgic fantasies and identify what is so attractive about them. My main attractive points from the Victorian period are the fashion, the furniture and the architecture: I can bring those into my contemporary experience by visiting the V&A museum (lots of cool 1800s stuff in room 101) and drinking tea from pretty cups at home. I’m nostalgic for things being made by independent craftspeople without the big corporations of labour delegated to sweatshops. There’s still plenty of sweatshop-free and locally made stuff around, it’s just crazy expensive as the skilled makers are rare and have to pay ridiculous rents, too – but I can make good choices one at a time when possible, and make absolute reductions in my overall consumption. The 100,000 BC subtropical climate is a little harder to replicate so I’ll probably have to continue struggling putting clothes on every day, but I can read studies of prehistorical tribes and see if there’s something there I can learn from, about the communalism, the tribal dances, the sustainable living.

The protagonist of my short story doesn’t make a peace with the time she lives in: she just goes a bit crazy and her imaginary world evenly blends into the real. And that’s OK too, sometimes; especially for a writer there’s nothing wrong with occasional psychoses and highly eccentric behaviour. I’ll take total delusion and living in an imaginary world over nihilism any day, and if I can continue writing historical fiction and even get paid some money for it some day, then living in imaginary worlds could be my duty. Nostalgic fantasies show us what we want from life, just as discontent with the political climate shows what we don’t want from life, and it is useful to look at the nostalgia, listen to its message, and use that knowledge to take responsibility and do something to make this world a bit more welcoming.

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