Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Note of Thanks and New Year’s Comments and Resolutions

First and foremost, thank you very much for visiting my site and all the best for the New Year! Around this time pretty much every year I look back to the events of the year, mostly in my personal life, and I relive and evaluate how things have gone and my most memorable deeds and moments (if any).

And I must say 2008 has been an excellent year for me. The most outstanding event is the birth of my son Arameis and pretty much nothing can beat that! And it is interesting how things shift when suddenly a new member appears on the scene. It is both emotionally fulfilling and draining, a cause for joy and stress, the yin and yang of my life really.

As to my accomplishments and upcoming Resolutions for the New Year, there is the following to say and observe. Around mid-year I started this blog and it has been a tremendous and wonderful experience and a constant (healthy?) obsession of mine. Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog! I really appreciate each and every comment, which always makes my day! As a matter of fact, I have also found some very interesting blogs so keep posting there; I’m always curious to drop by.

What are my New Year's Resolutions then? The usual actually. Lose some weight, do more exercise, blah- blah… I haven’t been very consistent in those areas. However, I’m also curious to learn more about history and philosophy, and to grow at least an inch spiritually this coming year. Oh and maybe take up smoking or some other destructive act.

Every New Year is a promise filled with hope. Let's hope that the dreams that fell short in the previous year may become a reality in the coming one. The whole excitement and sense of adventure lies in its gradual increase. To get a step closer to … while the three dots can be filled with one's own wishes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Magic of Childhood and Bergman's “Fanny and Alexander”

Poster of Ingmar Bergman's movie "Fanny and Alexander"

Although I agree with the general consensus that Bergman was one of the greatest directors of all time, I must say that in recent years, I have gotten disenchanted with his works.

When I was a teenager I devoured all his works, and even the lesser ones were heavenly to me. Yet nowadays, I find his unwavering and relentless pessimism rather unnerving, and his works do not struck a chord within me. They seem like lifeless abstractions about human weakness and futility. Perhaps as a growing adolescent I was more attuned to such messages, whereas today they fall on deaf ears. I do not subscribe to simple inescapable wretchedness and believe that life is, if anything, an opportunity, or a stage to bring out one's own convictions.

Despite all this apparent lack of respect for Bergman, I must say that Fanny and Alexander is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It is not only the culmination of all his previous body of work; it is, in fact, groundbreaking and a step further into the realm of modern cinema. (There is a subtle hint of a surreal and ghostly Lynchean world there.) It basically shows that, whatever you, or I, for that matter, may think or say of Bergman, he is still a genius.

The story resonated with me both on an intellectual and emotional level. The movie, which was awarded Oscars and has been praised worldwide, is in its 188 minutes unfortunately only a truncated version of the 312 minutes of the original TV version. And yes, I did get a sense that something was missing. It was not necessarily essential for the general comprehension or development, but it felt like skipping dessert.

Why am I so fond of this particular movie of his? Partly it might be nostalgia, but his message actually resonates with who I am now, building a bridge to who I was in my idolizing Bergman years.

It is a family epic at first glance, but it is actually about both the marvels and horrors of childhood. Childhood has its magical aspects, where one believes in the reality of ghosts and spirits and one's ability to conjure up impossible feats and even miracles; at the same time, it is a fertile breeding ground for fear and superstition. It is this ambiguous world that the movie enters incredibly and skillfully.

It is a fantasy that brings out both the best and worst in humankind; yet surprisingly, for Bergman, despite occasional grim and desolate tones, the movie overall is uplifting and does not destroy the ideals, but reanimates them. With this in mind it might explain why he started shooting the pillow-fighting scene first, perhaps as a reminder that it is childhood and magic that ought to be praised over the pessimistic and hopeless world created by adults.

Believing in magic may be a double-edged sword, but it is a way of blending the world of fantasy, the “little world” of the arts, theater, movies, literature with the exasperating and cruel real world outside. It is the very same equilibrium that fascinated me, and I can understand why Bergman chose to retire after his last official, paradoxically both least and most realistic work. It ends so beautifully and when all is said (and done), there is really nothing else to add.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Columbus' Secret Journal and the Sugarcane Incident

Christopher Columbus and his sailors taking possession of indigenous islands

Christopher Columbus, the “Admiral of the Seas,” was not expected to return from his voyages, according to the monarchs. But during his most famous voyage in August 1492, there was an interesting episode in his life, where he found both love and sugar cane.

The crew needed wine and water and so Columbus decided to stop at Gomera in the Canary Islands, which would be last port of call before crossing the Atlantic. The Islands were already under Spanish control since 1483 and the Governor of the Island was Beatrice de Bobadilla. After meeting her he decided to stay longer than planned; he remained in Gomera for a month.

This same woman was to be feared because she was described as cruel, ambitious, a thief and a nymphomaniac and had been nicknamed as the “Lady of the Gallows” and the “Lady of the Knife.” In fact, she had even ruined Fernando el Catolico who, despite his unwavering faith in religion and vows of chastity, could not resist her charms. Despite it all, and despite the fact that Columbus was already married to a woman by the same name and had had a child with her, he became romantically involved with the beautiful but cruel Governor.

As he was leaving, she made him an offering, a symbol for their “sweet love,” cuttings of sugar cane, which became the first to reach the New World. If you find this story interesting, please do not hesitate to read my fictional account of these events below written from the point of view of Columbus himself.


From the secret “Greek” journal:

Gomera, August 1492

The waves have been silent. For several days I have not perceived their soft lulling murmurs despite sitting on deck straining my ears, pen in hand. All this time their voices have been guiding me along leading me safe and sound across the most dangerous routes and savage lands. Were it not for their guidance I would have been lost and engulfed in the open jaws of the immense endless ocean. I trust in these voices as I trust in Polaris, the guiding north-star, and have complete unerring faith in the Hand of our Creator who moves and gives life to all beings under the brightly illuminated at times furiously somber wide sky.

My crew has grown weary and is ill-equipped for the remainder of this long and upcoming dangerous journey. Their lack of stamina is worrisome to me. Two of my seamen raise suspicions in my mind. The rudder of the Pinta has come loose, being broken and unshipped. 

After some discussion and deliberation I, the High Admiral of the Sea, have decided to embark on the first firm land that we shall come across, it being Gomera. My inaugurations have been unfruitful, and I have been forced to make my own decision. May it not be a grave error and may the Hand of the Creator shelter us from any evil that might befall us!


Land has come in sight. We are moving towards it. We will need to provide ourselves with food and wine; this fact is reflected on the meager sun-burnt faces of my sailors. We will stop for only a few days, after which we shall sail on to fulfill our royal and god-given mission. Never can setting foot on firm land fill me with the thrill of being in flux and moving on water. Water is my abode, my wandering hungry soul; land is the provision of the body.


The island is called Gomera and it appears to be a terrestrial version of paradise. Its shape resembles a peeled half of an orange. At first, I was worried about possible surprise attacks of its people. Parts of the island were shrouded in cloud and swirling mist, and we would have been extremely vulnerable considering that most of us had not drunken or eaten and had been marked by weakness. However, the people of Gomera were quite hospitable and like many natives they dress in most unusual yet simple ways. Some of them wear large colorful handkerchiefs around their waist, garments that seem to have been made of goat skins. They are also prone to have necklaces of wood, bone and shells hanging from their necks.

To our greatest surprise they are of white race and its men are tall and muscular; I have come across many an inhabitant with blond hair. They also have a rudimentary knowledge of different languages, such as French, Spanish and Portuguese. They replenished us with foodstuff and sweetened water; their fruits, bananas, figs and peaches filled our empty and growling stomachs, and we all slept content and dreamed of the ocean.


The Gomeran people talk amongst each other a most strange but oddly beautiful language the likes of which I have never heard before. It sounds as if two birds are having a lengthy conversation. They must have picked up these unusual sounds and whistles in imitation of some of the many species of birds they have in their nearby luscious green jungle. This birdsong strikes me as most interesting and one day I shall like to learn it.


Today I am ought to meet the principal governess of the island, Dona Beatriz de Bobadilla of Castilla. I have heard rumors about her on the old continent and shall like to verify with my own eyes and ears how much truth is conveyed in them. One of the supposed anecdotes connects her to Fernando, the Catholic, a devout man who has pledged to the vows of chastity. No woman on earth could make him break this oath, but it is purported that Beatriz has ensnared and entangled him to such a degree that for a moment he has forgotten himself and his vows and has engaged in illicit behavior. I am excited about meeting her face to face. Our departure has been postponed by a few days.


With anticipation and a thrilling sensation within I was led into the protected and fortified San Sebastian Tower, the official residence of the governing Dona Beatriz. As I was being led to her quarters it occurred to me that it might have been an unusual perhaps irrelevant coincidence but my wife carried the same name.

I was waiting in the hallway, when she was announced by one of her elegantly dressed muscular slaves. She walked with grace her long thin nose slightly upturned and with a nonchalant air she greeted me. However, in her penetrating brown eyes I thought to detect a welcoming glimmer. She reached out her soft pomaded hand, and I took it and kissed it gently.

What great news to have someone from the continent. Columbus was your name, is it right?”

I nodded. She took a seat at a richly decorated table and offered me to sit opposite of her.

We do get visitors every now and then but they are all such a bore so I hardly feel any lack when they finally leave. You are not a bore, SeƱor, am I in the right?”

I consider myself an adventurer, and not a tradesman.”

Well-responded. Yes, tradesmen are the worst. They take advantage of our hospitality yet at the same time they wish to make commerce with us. We don’t need their trades or wares; we have everything we want on the island.”

And may I compliment you on it. It is such a heavenly piece on earth.”

And you should know, I suppose, it coming from the mouth of a world traveler.”

Well, in all modesty, the world is God’s endless creation. There is many a thing that still needs discovering.”

Such as a Westerly route to India?”

Thenceforth, you are acquainted with my mission?”

You are regarded as a courageous man in some circles; in others, a mere fool.”

And which circle do you subscribe to, if I may ask.”

She smiled, and there was a strange glow in her eyes as her small sensual mouth stated, “That remains to be seen. I don’t trust first impressions. I need to get to know you better to make a judgment on this matter.”

Her words, both in tone and content felt like sharp knives. I had been told that Dona Beatriz was regarded as witty, sharp-tongued, sensual and beautiful. Now I verified those epithets with my very own eyes.

Gomera is indeed a beautiful place, were it not for its inhabitants. They are a plague.”

How is that so?”

My husband’s death, assassination to be exact, in recent years has led me to become more cautious and reclusive. These primitives are fierce and at any moment given the opportunity will stab you in the back. I had to take drastic measures to secure peace.”

She paused as one of the servants brought fresh cut fruit and filled our chalices to the brim with sweetened palm juice. She watched him intently and only as he left did she continue, “I had to send my most trusted men to cut off their hands and feet so that I shall not be betrayed again. Ignorant heathens such as them understand only the language of violence.”

A heavy hand does wonders to primitive people.”

She nodded somewhat absent-mindedly and added a reflective “Indeed”.

Your Grace I would like to thank you for your wondrous hospitality…”

She appeared to start from her thoughts. “Why, you shall not bid your leave as of yet because I shall not grant it. Stay for dinner, I beseech you, there is no entertainment here, and my men are dull as an old kitchen knife. My ears are burning to hear all about your travels, and I shall tell you a tale or two of my own adventures, if it shall please you.” 

By her side time flew like a heedless flying ship. The more time I spent with her, the more I felt I was bound to her and how much poorer would I feel once I shall leave her side. I had thought it impossible that my body and soul should yearn for her physical presence the same way they longed for the soothing sounds of the ocean. She engulfs me, surrounds me, envelopes me in the sweetest and the most unforgettable of all perfumes. Now as I am writing this alone in the spacious ornamented room she has chosen for me, my hand still quivers from our encounter moments ago; I need to find the warm pulsating center within her.


My crew is getting restless; they have been idle for too long. They crave adventure again; they want to embark on another voyage filled with adventures after having stuffed their bellies and rested their bodies. But the ocean although only footsteps away from here has grown dumb to me. So let my crew wail and cry, my thirst is not yet quenched.


Gomera, Thursday, 6 September, 1492

It has been a month and my duty never ceases its calling. O sweetest of all creatures, o wonderful Beatriz you who have showed me and given birth to the utmost wonders of life I shall have to leave you now with greatest sorrow and regret. But I give you my word as an honorable god-fearing man, as the captain of ships, the high Admiral of the Sea that I shall board again on your precious promised land. I will even cheat death to be in your scented arms again.

Whether as a talisman or as a reminder of the sweetest times of my entire life, she gave me a special gift that I shall carry with me at all times: cuttings of sugarcane.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Norms, Normalcy and going against the Norm

Poster of movie with Gene Kelly happily "Singing in the Rain"

What is sanity? We all intuitively know what it is, but how can we explain what sanity means? It's a difficult question. As a legal term it simply means having “normal” or “sound” powers of mind. But what does one consider normal and, moreover, who decides it?

It's probably easier to look at the matter “negatively,” to try to explain sanity by giving examples of what it is not, hence to define it as the negation of insanity.

Yet there we run into various operational problems. What I consider sane may be different from your point of view. And it is not just on an individual basis. In fact, our whole society may deem certain acts as insane, while it may be only a question of cultural difference. For example, when I was in Italy I was surprised to run into a person walking on his own and suddenly bursting into loud song. I found it rather odd and a thought immediately crossed my mind: This person must be insane.

But when I looked around to see other people's reaction, I was surprised that nobody paid him any attention, as if it were a normal kind of behavior. And in fact, it must be for them. I suppose in their culture, it is seen as perfectly normal to burst into singing whenever you feel like it. So we can say that what is normal is the “norm” of that particular place. It does come down to traditions and customs and an underlying often implicit set of rules and standards.

If normalcy, or the norm, is defined by society, can we then suppose that society could err? I mean could we consider a case where the other person, the one we have labeled as insane be actually the really sane one and all of us in grave error?

That takes us back to Plato's famous “cave allegory”: People were chained inside a cave and were following flickering shadows on the wall, taking them for reality. Then, one of them managed to escape and found out that there is actually a “real” world outside of the cave! So he returned to tell the others of his overwhelming revolutionary discovery, but to his surprise he was ridiculed, made fun of and declared insane.

Looking at the history of imprisonment and insanity, it is a fact that many people have been put into hospitals and declared insane for reasons such as not believing in God or having different, more liberal ideas about sexuality. It is then quite possible as Fromm states in “The Sane Society” that the error could actually be on society's side. The same way as one person can err at times, a whole society of millions of people could be equally wrong, and the eye-opening event could be caused by somebody we have hastily and blindly labeled as insane.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rebellion and Existentialism

The taking of the Bastille in the French Revolution

It seems to me that existentialism is inherently connected with rebellion. Looking at some of its founders, we can note a certain pattern. There are revolutionaries like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who each in their own different way attempted to upturn the accepted moral standards and conventions and replace them with more immediate, personal beliefs and convictions.

The focus of existentialism is indeed individual existence itself. But it is one where you are, as Sartre would say, “condemned to be free” and “thrown into the world”, when you are wandering the long and wide road of life without a road-map or point of destination, except perhaps the inevitable event of one's upcoming death.

However, as you are in the midst of fear and angst you would like to hold onto anything that comes your way and gives you any kind of stability. People will offer you “road-maps for the soul” or they will try to fill you up with promises of heaven and the afterlife to give you some kind of security, some kind of grip on the absurdity and brutality that you are faced and grapple with on a daily basis.

Sure, faith does play a role in existentialism because reason seems incapable of fully answering the principal existential questions that are on the tip of your tongue. But it does not simply consist of embracing an appealing-looking faith; it involves struggle, suffering, endless-seeming battles and the ever-present and constant voice of doubt in your head. Faith is something one must earn over time and to have the scars to prove it.

But in the midst of this philosophical movement, there is an invitation for rebellion. Camus changed the famous slogan by Descartes from “I think, therefore I am” into “I rebel, therefore we exist.” Rebel against what? It goes back to the revolutionaries of old, a call to fight against all that is imposed upon us (against our will), to fight against ignorance, against bigotry, yet most importantly, against one's own deep-seated smug indifference.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Religion and the Sound of Laughter

Engraving of laughing Buddha
Marriage of Cana with Jesus

The problem with laughter, at least from the point of view of various religions, is its implication of disrespect. Laughter can be used as a tool to ridicule or mock authority, and it poses a specific threat since authority or the “truths” embodied by the authority figure would not be taken seriously.

There are different kinds of laughter, but each is seen as either un-serious or related to pleasure, two things that religion throughout history has not been very fond of. Satires, for example, have many political implications as an implicit critique and a source of discredit towards authority figures. By focusing on the weaknesses or absurd traits of leaders, those people in charge may lose their status and respect in the eyes of the public, or what is even considered a worse effect, those leaders would not be able to instill fear anymore.

Plato was against laughter as it diverged from the path towards truth and knowledge, and he saw comedies as harmful to the soul and religious sentiments. In fact, Plato did not accept any art that did not contain a certain kind of model for morality. Monasteries are built on silence and reflection, and the sound of laughter would be a disruption of serenity and austerity and a sign of irreverence, a fact that was stunningly demonstrated in the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It was only through serious reflection and meditation that one could attain the truth or have a connection with the spiritual realm.

Despite a common feature among religions to focus on obedience and relentless study of scriptures and doctrines, there is the strange incidence of the “flower sermon” in Zen Buddhism. The Buddha is said to have held up a flower to convey and transmit a secret truth that cannot be learned or taught in the traditional way with sermons or lectures.

The “unspoken truth” was embodied in an enigmatic smile, and a main tenet of Zen is that truth must be passed on from the master to the student. Of course, there is no lack of discipline and soul searching, but it is a strange case where a smile, though not laughter, is acknowledged as a mediator of truth. There are various Buddhist traditions that also give laughter credit and emphasis, as the future Buddha, Maitreya, is often represented as a merry and jolly, Santa Claus-type figure.

Yet what about Jesus? Traditionally, the focus has been on his serious and dedicated nature on the quest for God's truth. His sermons are mainly told in parables and are meant as lectures for his followers, while he has revealed or proven his higher powers through the use of miracles, whether walking on water or raising the dead.

However, there is a particular instance, one of his “early miracles”, where we can sense a certain kind of playfulness within the nature of Jesus. He attends the wedding at Cana and there is concern that there might not be sufficient wine. Wine, along with song, dance and laughter, is a celebration of life and of the ensuing marriage between the couple. The fact that Jesus is there, and in the movie Last Temptation of Christ we actually see him dance, shows that he was not adverse to fun and pleasure.

What strikes me even more is that he actually contributes and adds to the general joy by turning a supply of water into wine. Wine is stripped away from its religious significance, as opposed to the blood of Christ during the Last Supper, and is the medium for more joy and laughter. This is the Jesus that is often ignored, who, by using a miracle, adds to the general festivities and merriment instead of denouncing or criticizing it as a sign of disrespect towards God.