What is poetry about but about experiences. Thus, it entails both a subject and an object – the experiencer and the experienced; which if we may recall, is one of the dualities that have long mesmerized and perhaps taunted most philosophers and thinkers for their wish to reconcile the two despite of a seemingly inevitable failure. The self and the world – this is just another way of putting the two terms consisted in this enduring duality.
Perhaps this is where people like Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James and Arthur Schopenhauer are coming from, albeit in diverse manners and with inflections, when they attribute to poetry a certain distinction and potential. Poe, in “The Poetic Principle,” tells something about the “unity of impression” which is more achievable in shorter poems. I read this as Poe’s claiming of the most claimable truths we can have in this supposedly fragmented world that persistently evades totalization. On his part, Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoined the scholar to be “covetous of action” and to be in quest of a “variety of experiences.” Is this not the intense intercourse between self and world, without any pressure of achieving an encompassing unity, being advised by literary critics and poets even before our time? The Romantics are mostly remembered for this esteem put on poets and the partial-order to “recreate” elements of nature.
Definitely, the post-structural dispersion of incoherence and uncertainty which they try to make up for by opening the terrain for creativity and production, exerted an immense influence to the continuing negotiation between the self and the world and humanity’s overall enterprise to placate, if not make something sensible out of the latter. Having burgeoned at a time when wars have been waged among nations, people were killing one another by virtue of a creed, a race or power, the negative anxiety posed by the post-structural trend seem to expectedly overrule the positive appendage of an increased potential for creativity amidst the open-endedness.
Still, I am for according the poet the same insightful privilege given to her by the discourses that endured in previous generations. Amidst all the terrors and contradictions in a world seemingly complicating more and more with innovations and disasters coexisting with a much problematic human psyche, I believe poetry should take the cudgels and clobber the walls of illusions and delusions that cause humanity to err further at this point in time. With verses that ideally gain a certain level of recognition and eventually control over the world around us, albeit momentarily, I believe we can altogether forge ahead with a less uncertain outlook towards the world where we live. This shall not be fettered by a futile hope on attaining a consolation from an Eternal or Divine Truth that perhaps we think can finally guide and enlighten our lives. This shall be nurtured by a rose-colored attitude towards the potential for productivity and ceaseless motion and growth that will come from a contradicting yet productive bond between us, humanity and the world.
What I think is most significant about the film Stranger than Fiction is its initially pathetic, then somehow convincing but ultimately incomplete ending which I characterize to be a life-is-so-merry-and-poetic-so-let-us-all-embrace-one-another type of humanism. I think that this film is not the type where you think too hard about its plot and its supposed implications to the message of the film. I think the “intricacies” of the plot of this one (the novel within a movie mode) are precisely just the narrative twists infused to deliver an otherwise passé message.
While watching the film at the first parts and thinking about what it throws at me, I imagined myself being inclined to problematize the possibilities it shows. For instance, the obtrusions of “fiction” into “real” life and the general complications involving the two, supposedly separate entities. Nearly at the onset, I was reminded of the Brechtian “alienation effect” and all those post-structural artistic techniques that are supposed to poke at the readers’ immersion to the “fiction” they are reading or viewing. There is a “narrator” narrating the events that are happening in Harold Crick’s life and eventually we will find out that these narrations are from the actual novel “Taxes and Death” by Karen Eiffel. But I can firmly say that this is not the film’s attempt to interrogate the relationship between reality and fiction; this is not an attempt to say something about this relationship. As we can judge from the film, this is merely a coincidence employed in the film to drive its plot forward.
Ultimately, what we have is a humanistic tear-jerking type that almost effectively waxed poetic and utilized the formulaic approach on rendering the lesson of the story. Karen Eiffel changed the ending of what could have been the masterpiece of her entire literary career since she cannot take to “kill” a man who knew of his death beforehand, had the ability to forestall the death, and yet did not do so.
This film has cute moments, nevertheless.
Will Ferrell, more known for his roles in comedy films, suddenly turned serious and almost romantic. Maggie Gyllenhaal is charming in almost all of the times. Very pronounced is that humanistic connection with a fellow human being, albeit in the kind of relationship that is, despite being the most minute in scope is still difficult to achieve – romantic relationships. They talked late in the evening after Harold sorted Ana Pascals’ (Gyllenhaal) tax files. She baked cookies for him, and they had moments. Eventually, perhaps thought unlikely at the kickoff, they went together. And then Harold faced his fate as “written” by Eiffel until humanistic mushiness neared surfeit to alter its course. Hence, Eiffel’s book’s “poetic” message: the interesting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes disgusting connections among all remotest of things and how they impact the course of our lives; as in the case of Harold Crick, a wristwatch saved him.
This is worn-out butterfly effect that eggs on us to be more wary and thoughtful in making decisions and doing actions as we can neither calculate nor predict their consequences in the future. And so what both the film and Eiffel’s novel suggests is a lovely type of humanism that is, however beautiful, seems to be unlikely to happen at a larger space and time. What kind of humanistic ardor does the film hints at is tacitly inscribed in these concluding lines:
“Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in helplessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind of loving gesture, or a subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort.”
Of course, this has validity. And personally, I am sometimes a cutesy proponent of this kind of broad, occasionally vague humanism. But the film shrouds the other factors that determine our lives and the way we react to what it proffers – cosmic forces, personal peculiarity and social realities as produced and shaped by dominant economic and political agents. This is where most films fall into: too much faith in humanity that they single it out and supposed to summon its potential to be virtuous and kind without considering the bigger setting where they operate.
“But never, Comrade, never will we revert to buying real estate and becoming landlords. We continue to fell the insidious sparrows. There, my friend, there is yet another peak to be forged. Behind it, the sun rises: Hala Bira! The light burns. We never shade our eyes.” (A Poem is a Comrade, Eileen Tabios, Beyond Life Sentences)
The altitude of the sun is a replacement for our selfless, towering ambitions: in all sacrificial nobility, in all pursuit of a kindred cause:
A beggar slumps on the streets and rains do not displace him and we dream for him clothes and shelter. An African boy visits us in the internet and its frail thinness taunt the praying mantis and all it entreats. For the boy, we dream of bananas and vegetable salads and getting into school; for the praying mantis, we dream only for it to be heard.
The clouds need not hear divine grace to shroud the skies once in a while; this is all the better if only to suppress our high hopes sometimes. The sky, however, need some refraction and universal mystiques to turn into red.
It is almost 6am and the east is red as the bloods in every soil where conquest and struggle once seethed. The bright sun accepts today’s emerging. At this early, light is proud.
The dream lives on!
So we all salute the sun’s blotching of the sky and all brands of dreams it contains.
Sun light burning Our eyes seeking its center This is how visions can be impaired.
This book is notable to me for one, chief reason: it was the first book I was able to finish in just a day in quite a long time (not exactly sure though, if it was the first of ALL time). Given a type of schedule that usually snatches away hours to read books (much more, say a few things about them), I felt excited and fulfilled with this “feat.”
The copy I read was bought by my girlfriend in yet another eventually thrilling purchase from the month-long sale of National Book Store. I was actually hesitant at first in letting her buy the book. To me then, Phillip Roth was just someone a bit overrated than the likes of James Patterson and the Grisham guy which makes him look like a better, smarter writer. To give credit to my girlfriends’ tastes and perhaps book instincts, I was proven wrong, at least with this case at hand.
Roth’s Indignation was an interesting and riveting read: Marcus Messner is an outstanding, intelligent, albeit significantly socially troubled youth who eventually finds himself in Winesbrug, a conservative college in Cleveland after spending his first year in the local college in his hometown Newark, New Jersey. In Winesburg, he met pranksters and latent lunatics, the suspiciously righteous, Jewish fraternity kids, tacitly domineering Deans and school Presidents, and most importantly, one woman who will mainly cause his descalating journey from likely class valedictorian to the Korean War as a Private solider and then death.
At times, I saw Holden Caulfield in Marcus. Perhaps he was the less reckless, seemingly more mature version who, while admirably and staunchly brandishing his protective intellectualisms still fails to use this academic exquisiteness in achieving a more amicable relationship with others. Where Holden was saved and was able to confront the difficulties from his environment and eventually assimilate back to it, Marcus was ruined by crucial indecision and ambivalence in the face of a much rigorous environment. To begin, Marcus had to transfer from the local college to Winesburg to escape his suddenly paranoid father who tremendously fears for his security. While this looked sound at first given the unsoundness of the opposing element, we cannot discredit the fact that this initially betokens Marcus’ escapism which would be used against him in the future and which we could largely depend on in judging his character.
Marcus’ character manifested itself to be problematic, as all characters are, as he fumbled with his relations and interactions with his roommates, Dean Caudwell and most vitally, Olivia Newton, the Blowjob Queen whose recurring sexual engagements with him befuddled him and pushed his life towards its eventual direction.
The Dean would speculate he impregnated her, significantly contributing to her eventual mental breakdown. His mother once met Olivia, and noticing the scar on her wrist (Olivia once attempted to kill herself), she asked her son to stop having connections with her. It was Olivia who had been the strongest driving force in the superficial loss of Marcus. When she appeared to have turned on Marcus’ emotions and offset his reason and theoretical focus, the best he can do was to write her “sweet letters,” and the worst, be tactless when talking to her. As all flames go, they waned; as all of us in the overlapping worlds of fact and fiction, from heroes and foxy wenches to fat kids and drug addicts, there are always triumph and tribulations, all momentary; and true to Marcus’ father’s wisdom in the novel, our “most banal, most incidental, even comical choices (can) achieve the most disproportionate result.” And in the certainty of death always being the terminal of a series of results, there are mainly two ways by which we accost such given: either we mope too much and dramatize, or we bask and celebrate, however trifling, however comparable to a crude product or a sham.
“History is not the background; history is the stage”
Arguably the highlight of the novel was the White Panty Raid executed by the boys of Winesburg one snowy night on the female dormitories. What causally and innocently begun as a light fighting and rollicking among the boys on the thickening snow turned out to be a smart prelude to an unruly but otherwise defined hijacking of the females’ spaces. The boys are definite in their raid: they must nab all the white panties in the dormitories. In a rowdy act, and one which I interpret as instigated merely by the boys’ rebelliousness against a fettering institution that is their school; all the fake innocence, all the unbearable reticence and forced obsequiousness were attempted to get rid of through the symbol of the white panties. Hard to say they succeeded; to begin, was success a key motivation of this entire act? They have done something and that was it; in the days to come, they will be rebuked, some will be expelled, and all will hear the nerve-wracking sermon of the university President. I quote him in his ceremonious speech, “Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear.”
Here, the President was invoking the Korean War, and using it as the stepping stone for his tirade against his ill-behaving students which has flown to the news with their rambunctious white panty raid. Against the intensity, the graveness of the things at stake and the dedication of those who are in the war which he imprecated, the university President was able to show how petty and immature and playful was the act committed by most of the male students of Winesburg. Facing the wrath and rebellion, however tasteless its form is, of the students against rectitude posed by the pastoral college, against the societal pressures and norms and prescriptions, the president had to compare their undertakings to the undertakings forwarded and risked in the war where a lot of their fellowmen are involved. Hence, he was downplaying the concerns of the Winesburg students: an indignation over the detrimentally limiting imposition of rectitude, exasperation at the prescriptions and unremitting expectations of an external body. The moral supremacy that was aimed to be instilled at Winesburg (the weekly chapel attendance is just one proof) already took its toll on the students and like the Chinese vehement in defending themselves against the Japanese conquerors, “indignation fills the hearts of all” of them and as they “refuse to be bondslaves,” they built a new Great Wall.
This novel by Roth, at several moments, felt like chili powder in my tongue. It piqued me, kept me sensing, licking at the experience. The descriptions are quick but not hollow; the revelations of character’s states of minds and emotions were ornamental and capturing: “Have I been living all these years with a time bomb,” Marcus’ mother on his father. And the dialogues are puissant and moving and often straight to the gut. For instance, after listening to Marcus recite some Bertrand Russell, the Dean showed here not only just how unimpressed he was, but how he can puke at where Marcus was coming from: “There are always one or two intellectually precocious youngsters in every campus, self-appointed members of an elite intelligentsia who need to elevate themselves and feel superior to their fellow students, even to their professors and so pass through the phase of finding an agitator or iconoclast to admire on the order of a Russell or Nietzsche or Schopenhauer” (106).
True, the Dean has a point, but this point arrives with force perhaps because it was already normalized by an environment collusive to this kind of thinking. More importantly, this little speech by the Dean reflects the self-serving rationalizations of someone in authority not wanting to look powerless and too stupefied with supposed subordinates.
What these currency is telling is that history is just composed of civil or international strife, economic plunges and cultural revolutions, usually displacing, effacing the individuals who want to get blown, who think of killing the veins in their wrists and themselves, who get tired of the repetition of abiding and nodding and get out of the box and shake everything, including themselves, in a world that has gone rancidly silent and static.
This is perhaps the incongruity between the macro and the micro once again, the universe and the particularly human, the group and the individual. My humanistic, angst-ridden way of ending this is through this: the individual shall persist and keep asserting in the face of Systems and Religions and Doctrines and Causes divesting her of her self, her individuality.