Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Hamlet and Nightclubs

Gate to Shakespeare Summer Event
On a midsummer Saturday night, I had the fortune of witnessing a modern adaptation of Hamlet at the Bard on the Beach festival. It was my first time to attend the annual event the flapping tents of which had been tempting me for quite some time. I have no qualms with modernized versions of Shakespearean plays as long as the text with its incomparably beautiful language is left intact and is not tampered with.

As this is the longest (and in my view the most ambitious and profound) of Shakespeare's plays, I expected some cuts and edits here and there due to time constraints. When I feel like taking in the full unedited version, I will always faithfully turn to Kenneth Branagh's magnificent and faithful film version of the tale at the comfort of my abode. 

In fact, no matter how interesting or engaging the play may be, sitting on one's behind for four hours straight surrounded by hundreds of strangers and without any access to crispy snacks is indeed a challenge even for hardened Shakespeare fans.

Again I did not mind that swords were generally replaced by guns. I also found the multimedia aspect of this version rather interesting. The characters are mostly in modern business suits, and Hamlet has an ever-present prop and gadget in his hand, his android, which was occasionally used for taking pictures and heavily used as a music-playing device. 

The music itself ranged from techno to The Beatles (the Revolution track in particular) to a bizarre but amusing use of Velvet Underground's “I'm sticking with you.” There were also TV monitors displaying the news on CNN regarding the political actions of Fortinbras.

Most of this worked for me, and the highlight was the play to catch the king that involved mini-cameras filming a dollhouse projected on a big screen. It had a Lynchean feel to it. The scene where Hamlet confronts his mother and reprehends her for choosing Claudius over his own father by showing her pictures of each person on her iPad was rather ingenious.

A number of personal reactions struck me as I was watching the play unfold before my eyes. The timelessness of Shakespeare came to mind. In terms of plot and subject matter, this play has not aged a bit. 

Nor has it regarding wisdom. There is so much knowledge and insight contained in these three or thereabout hours that it makes one's head spin. Having it performed live surely helps since one can pick out a variety of puns, which the reading eye may not catch to its full resounding extent.

Moreover, Shakespeare gives his characters life and dimensions; he fleshes them out carefully and then throws them into action. Hamlet who had always struck me as a neurotic à la Woody Allen type can come out as a deeply troubled, if not insane, young man.

His quest for answers concerning life and death resonates in every philosophically or spiritually-inclined person. His musings are ours; our doubts, hopes, fears, desires, frustrations are reflected therein. That there is a time interval of four hundred years is no matter here; the questions are as freshly troubling as ever, the answers equally elusive.

With those ideas throbbing and pulsating in my mind I decided to walk home. I crossed the Burrard Bridge and enjoyed the nighttime view from above, occasionally stopping to take a snapshot with my iPhone. I imagined Hamlet in my situation perhaps deliberating whether to jump or not to jump. In my case, I was thrilled with the warm mid-summer night air, while my spirit was replenished with masterful art; in fact, I even wished I could travel to the stars and hug the glowing moon.

My walk lasted about half an hour. After the bridge, I reached a bustling street that had its share of young people all dressed up and ready to dance, to party and to get drunk. Some of them were already in an inebriated state.

Many of them were waiting in line to get to the hotspots, the most popular and thriving nightclubs in town. They were excited. I could see it in their faces, their hand gestures, their body movements, and I could hear it in the timber of their voices. Some of them had come to have a good time with their friends, to vent off steam from life's many pressures and / or to find a temporary and dispensable sexual partner.

The women looked great. They had brought out their sexiest outfits for that specific moment. During the day, they would clothe and hide themselves in appropriate office wear, but at night they would give free reign to the sexy tigress within them. Some of them perhaps just felt good to look attractive; others may have had other objectives in mind.

As all these people were chatting loudly and passionately about God knows what, I realized how much I was out of place. My thoughts were revolving around Hamlet, art and existence and here there were these young folks who did not give a six-pence or farthing for any of that. They were here to devour life, to take it by its horns and to drink it with gratifying pleasure.

My own ideas of pleasure felt at odds. Even in my younger years I preferred the company of a good book or movie over the wild and bustling throngs of people. Nightclubs never really appealed to me. They were too loud. One could not have a decent conversation in there.

One could not talk about philosophy, life, and Hamlet in those stuffy and often smoke-filled rooms. Beer and alcohol dulled, not sharpened the mind; they lulled one's speech; they distorted one's equilibrium. They brought out baser or more instinctual pleasures to the foreground. They also had the bewitching power to make (almost) everyone appealing and desirable.

That was never my world. Sensual pleasures, unbridled, free and selective does appeal to me at times (in thought, not in deed!) but I still prefer the life I have. My wife and my son and my days of going to family events, watching movies and TV series, or reading and blogging are what matter to me.

These are my pleasures, pure and simple. I remember once being asked in my psych class what was the most pleasurable thing that had occurred to me that week. Without hesitating I answered that it was buying the latest Sting CD. 

I am sure I am missing out on some pleasures. But at the same time, I am profoundly happy how things are and the way I am and deep inside I do not think I am actually missing or missing out on anything of real importance. I was and hope to be true to mine own self. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Does God of the Old Testament fear Humans?

Glass skyscraper pointing to the sky

This may seem like an absurd (and blasphemous) question at first sight. God is considered perfection personified with all good and commendable attributes elevated to the nth degree, their highest and most extreme form. God is omnipotent; he can change the course of history, slaughter humans and animals alike, close and open wombs, split seas, burn bushes without leaving a trace, create miracles out of thin air and humans out of sheer dust.

Interestingly, Adam was created in the image of God. So in a sense if he is not a mirror image, then at least Adam is similar in likeness to his Creator; in other words, he is like God. Adam can be seen as the child or student, and God his father and master. Nonetheless, it is made clear from the outset that God is and must be at all times superior to Adam. God commands full and complete obedience from his creation.

Yet it so happens that there are two trees in the Garden of Eden. Whether God put them there on purpose (generally not a good idea since it would imply a self-defeating act) or they were there to begin with, namely that heaven ispo facto comes with those trees in the very midst of the garden, or whether perhaps someone else had planted them there, these are all questions and speculations beyond the scope of this current post.

It seems that neither Adam nor Eve paid too much attention to this; they knew of the existence of the Tree of Good and Evil which God forbade them to eat from at the expense and punishment of death, but they showed no particular interest or inclination towards it. This changes, however, when the Serpent points out the “benefits” of eating from the forbidden fruit, often referred to as apples due to its Latin similarity of its root word malum denoting evil.

I imagine that both Adam and Eve started pondering whether they should have of it or not. They do not want to disobey or displease their God, yet the seed of curiosity is budding within them. The serpent had assured them that they would not die, but rather their eyes will be opened, and they will see and be like God; they will know the distinction between good and evil and become wise.

At that time, they are still shielded and protected by a complete ignorance of evil. But what if they were able to cast aside their naivety and open their eyes to both sides of the spectrum? They would not only gain knowledge and learn to distinguish good from evil, but they would be able to make a choice, to have an operating and functional will.

Although this is often depicted as transgression or disobedience towards God, I see it more as an act of empowerment. It may look like willful or sinful rebellion, yet their actions in my view are not ill-intentioned because how could they know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong at that stage? You cannot blame someone for doing wrong or for being unethical if the concept of and distinction between right and wrong makes no sense to them.

God's reaction is very interesting here. He gets furious. He expels them from paradise, blocks its entry with cherubim guards and a flaming sword and curses the ancestors of humanity with labor (in both senses of the word) as well as death.

But why? Sure, they did wrong, but so does everyone else who is innocent, naive or lacks knowledge about the world or ethics. Adam and Eve are not perfect, and I do not think they fully knew what they were doing nor were they aware of the grave consequences of their action. All they did was to eat some fruit. Big deal.

Yet what if that act had given them unprecedented power? While they may have been in the likeness or appearance of God, they were not equal to him in their powers, imagination or mental faculties. But what if suddenly they had come a step closer towards enlightenment or godhood?

Adam and Eve had acquired knowledge, but what was missing was the everlasting strength and power. Yet incidentally next to the Tree of Good and Evil, there was the Tree of Life. Now if they had also eaten from that tree, they would have been given eternal life to boot. They would have been on par with God Himself! God gives voice to his fears – as he is talking either to himself or to a companion - claiming that man was becoming like them; should Adam and Eve also eat of the Tree of Life, they could live forever.

By acting quickly, expelling them and guarding the gates of heaven with heavily armed angels, it seems that God made sure that day would never come. To make matters worse - for us and not for him of course - he gave them mortality. He let them struggle for survival; they had to sustain themselves by their own means via constant work. Gone were the heavenly days of bliss and idleness and ever since then humans have to work with the sweat of their brows for a piece of bread.

My second example is the Flood. What if God destroyed almost all of humanity not merely because of their purported evil ways but because he had effectively lost control and say over them. Perhaps they were getting too independent or insolent for his taste. It seems that in the revolutionary minds of those people, obedience was the last thing on earth they would have embraced. Yet God sees that if he killed them all, his own work and diligence would become futile, so he saved one of the best of their kind for posterity, good old Noah.

After this clearing of accounts and new tidings, we have another instance, namely the Tower of Babel. This is the most explicit example where humans try to reach (for) God. Yet this stairway to heaven was not welcomed by God. Why not?

God could have dismissed it as an idle and innocuous threat, but instead he took it quite seriously. We do not know the actual intention or motivation of the people in Babel. Did they simply wish to contact God or did they want to besiege and take over his territory?

Either way, the consequence is quite clear. God is telling someone (again whom???) that humans have become too unified and strong, so he brings about confusion by confounding their tongues.

It seems that the unity of nation and language had created a possible threat to the dominance of God. It is mainly through this united front that they conceived and dared to engage in such an ambitious feat, namely to construct a tower so high that it can reach the very top of the firmaments, the zenith of the skies. Just like Adam, they too are banished and spread out around the globe, and instead of harmony, discord is created amongst them.

Now it may be that all of these speculations are misguided and that God would never fear humans because he is at all times and in all aspects and respects superior to all of humanity. Perhaps it is that the God of the Old Testament is merely demanding and strict. He does not tolerate the slightest disobedience from his creatures.

According to the Old Testament, any other hobbies or pastimes, not to mention other gods, are strongly discouraged, and such transgressions are often punished with death or exile. In fact, worshippers are told to wash their hands and feet before praying or else they shall die. These types of pronouncements seem too harsh, if not petty or unjust, in our modern eyes. Maybe it is that the God of the Old Testament is indeed a jealous god as he himself proclaims on certain occasions.

If it were not for Moses's ardent pleading, God wanted to kill them all for their offense, namely for praying to and idolizing the holy calf. God insists on being faceless and ought not be symbolized or represented in discernible ways (this is all pre-Jesus times of course). In the end, God accepts to sign another covenant or treaty with humans forgiving them once again for their sins and trespasses. It is only over a long period of time that God and humans manage to slowly build trust and a hopeful and lasting relationship with each other.

The question still remains whether God is indeed afraid of the capabilities and potential of humans. Yet if God is indeed jealous, then he is more in our likeness than we would care (or dare) to admit. He would be plagued with the same uncertainties and demons, but then that would be a contradiction in terms to the superior and excelling qualities we generally attribute to God. It would take Jesus with his new gospel and the New Testament to come in-between God and humans, and he would redeem the latter and console the former to attain lasting peace between each other.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Food Rituals and Culture around the World

Photo of a Sample of Iranian Food

On one of those sleepless summer nights I caught moments of a French CBC radio show (strangely enough that channel is my antidote to insomnia) in which there was talk about food and its influence and connection with culture. In this social anthropology of food, the main observation was that ethnic food from relatively poorer or developing countries, such as India, Thailand, Mexico, and parts of Africa are more popular and known - not to mention tastier - than Western food. So they looked for possible underlying reasons for this phenomenon.

One of the factors that influences the preparation and consumption of food is family harmony. In fact, food brings the family together at the table, and it is shared and eaten as a kind of bonding ritual. This is mostly the case in collectivist countries in which family is given more importance and priority, and food becomes its indispensable ambassador.

In Mexico, I was often surprised how poor people who barely have enough money for their daily expenses do not tamper with nor moderate their amount of food consumption. They eat well regardless of their economic status, and they would even go to extremes of pawning their belongings to offer their guests abundant quality food. It is seen as a major embarrassment if there were a lack of food or drink at a get-together, and countries that appreciate and value these bonds are known to be the most hospitable.

In such economies, the patriarchal structure is still prevalent. Women are often responsible for cooking. They usually take and spend a lot of time in the kitchen to prepare sumptuous and delicious meals for the family. It is all made with love, and they become the glue that can create and sustain family harmony. For modern Western ears, this may sound as a serious case of sexism or male chauvinism, and to a degree this is in fact so.

But since women are often not pursuing careers in those countries (although this is beginning to change), they perfect their cooking. Strong flavours are more common in such societies and food is seen as both pleasurable and sacred. The delicious taste relaxes the tired and hardworking bodies and fills and renews the souls. Time stops and tomorrow (or mañana), with all its work and pain and suffering is kept at bay for the time being.

Ethnic food is recognizable by its strong, pungent and easily recognizable smell, whereas it seems that Western food is embarrassed of any types of odors even if they be pleasant. Since time is often perceived as money, food becomes merely important for its physical properties, namely as fortification of the body.

The less time one spends on cooking food and the faster it can be consumed, the more hours of work and hence income would become available and possible for the individuals. This may be a reason why in Western societies, family is not a top priority, and food becomes diverted to more shallow and less expensive forms of nourishment, such as junk and fast food.

In addition, there are other factors that influence the type of food, such as the choice of ingredients. In tropical climates, the taste of these ingredients is often richer and more natural, whereas in colder industrial climates, we eat for the most part genetically modified and manipulated food that looks good, but has no particular taste.

Also, a high consumption of food may slow down the metabolism, which makes people sleepy and leads to laziness. This may be a taboo word in Western culture, but it is generally accepted in others, especially Latin countries that still insist on the practice of siestas, with the potential aim to sleep off one's meals.

Lastly, food is also its presentation. We are rather squeamish when it comes to it. There are many things we do not eat, and we want our food to look presentable. Having a fish with its head and eyes staring at you from your plate will not make your mouth savor.

But Mexicans and Chinese, for instance, are not so concerned whether their food looks delicious but are more preoccupied with its taste. And there are indeed very few things considered taboo in those cultures, including blood and brains, food we often attribute to vampires and zombies respectively.

It is a shame that food is not as celebrated here as in other countries. It is not the same ritual for us. Food as celebration is usually delegated to the outside, namely to restaurants, picnics or barbecues. Few, to my knowledge, have sumptuous feasts (the occasional festive days excepted) in which the aim is to devour delicious treats in the name and for the sake of harmony between family and friends.