Friday, December 19, 2014

The Dancing Chicken: A Movie Review of Herzog's Stroszek

Colorful chicken bag with his chicks

(Redundant preamble: Although spoilers abound, this is one of those rare movies where it makes almost no difference if you know what happens in it or not. It needs to be seen and experienced. And my spoilers will hopefully not spoil the movie, but have the opposite effect of enticing you to watch it! If you want to get to the dancing chicken first, please disregard all the scribbles and look it up on YouTube. I will not be offended because it is the chicken that really counts here and is the meat of the matter!)

In the past, I had always been somewhat weary when approaching the films of Werner Herzog. His generally acclaimed movies are good but nothing seriously outstanding. It was the documentary Grizzly Man that first raised my eyebrows and the director's standing with me, but it was really Woyzeck (1979) that blew me away.

Now the similar-sounding title of Stroszek (1977) – our intents and purposes here - is intentional. Herzog who had previously worked with Bruno S. in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had initially wanted him to play Woyzeck as well. Yet since it did not work out since Herzog backed out of his promise, that particular role was given to Klaus Kinski instead (a wise choice indeed). So to compensate for it, Herzog decided to make another movie and wrote the script for Stroszek in merely four days.

There are two characteristics that are part and parcel of almost any Herzog movie. Apart from a stark realism that permeates pretty much all of his films, he is most interested in extreme characters who find themselves in even more extreme situations. Whether it is Fitzcarraldo lifting a ship up a mountain in Peru or the “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell living with grizzlies in the backlands of Alaska and suffering a gruesome death for it, it is the extraordinary that attracts the German director.

Bruno S. was one such person. An abandoned and abused child of a prostitute, this man who was generally deemed insane (but not by Herzog nor his standards) has gone through hell and then some. In fact, the first half of the movie set in Germany mirrors facts and events from Bruno's personal life.

His acting is fully natural because he is basically reenacting parts of his own life. In that sense, it has the feel of a documentary and to add to this, Herzog not only gave all the characters the same given names as their respective actors, but he even chose seasoned criminals to play the criminals who harass poor Bruno.

The first half of the movie is brilliant film-making indeed. It takes Herzog merely minutes to create sympathy for the main characters, mostly Bruno of course but also the accompanying prostitute Eva and the old man Scheitz. Something that James L. Brooks does not achieve in its entirety when it comes to the highly overrated Terms of Endearment (1983), for example.

We see this interesting and odd trio's daily life and their desires and dreams for escape. The generous and kind old man has little to look forward to except a possible trip to the US to visit his American nephew. Bruno has just been released from prison and a caring but stern prison ward gave him a long lecture on the vicissitudes of alcohol. Stay away from bars and if you find yourself there only buy coffee, Bruno is told. It is the drink that has brought him there, and the prison guard wishes him well and does not wish to ever see him on those prison grounds again.

So when Bruno leaves the prison with nobody waiting for him where does he go first? Straight to the adjacent bar to order a beer. When Eva asks him where he has been all this time, he responds with his deadpan yet naive face that he has been “on vacation.”

To protect Eva from her pimps, Bruno puts himself selflessly in danger. He makes money by playing his accordion and singing songs in back alleys. After a humiliating visit by the criminals who make fun of him and threaten him, Bruno finds some comfort with a doctor friend who cannot give him advice per se but who shows him premature babies gripping onto his fingers or, more symbolically, the desperate grip on life by the underprivileged. Life must go on even if one does not get a head start.

Enough is enough, so this unlikely trio Bruno, Eva, and the old man Scheitz decide to leave for the new continent that promises riches and happiness, in short, the elusive quest for the often sought-after American Dream. So far I was very moved by the characters as each of them (minus the criminals of course) were compassionate and complex beings.

Yet when they end up in the States, not only does the landscape change but so do the people. The Americans are portrayed as simple farm folk, as kind but mainly driven by sex and lust for money. Most of the second half deals with having and not having money, including a banker who means well but ends up taking or repossessing all of their possessions. For me, the movie lost some of its emotional drive because very little happens thereafter.

Since the trio finds it hard to adapt to the new lifestyle, they are driven into deep and irretrievable debt. So much so that Eva, the only one of the three who speaks English, picks up prostitution again and leaves with a couple of shady truckers further up north to Vancouver. The old man becomes increasingly paranoid of all Americans and both he and Bruno decide to rob money at gunpoint so that they can get by and be able to buy daily necessities.

When they are about to make those purchases, the old man gets arrested so we have Bruno left with a shotgun and a frozen turkey under his arm. The truck breaks down (after circling inexplicably around the shotgun and turkey, don't ask) in a no-good town (sorry Cherokee, North Carolina). And it all culminates and ends with a rabbit riding a fire truck, a chicken playing the piano, and, most importantly, the dancing chicken.

Ah, the dancing chicken! Now apparently Herzog's crew was unanimously and unequivocally offended by it, and they did not want to have any part of it. Hence they abstained and Herzog had to shoot the scene himself, which he, by the way, considers some of his most poignant film-making. Even he is not entirely sure what the dancing chicken stands for, but he claims it could be seen as a metaphor for life that somebody somewhere is putting in coins, and we all dance to those tunes just like that chicken.

It is silly, surreal, poignant, and unforgettable all in one! What better way to finish up a year and start a brand-new one than with a dancing chicken. Hope you enjoyed this bit, dear reader, and all the best for the holidays and a Happy New Year to you!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Human Face of Addiction

A lonely tree at the top of apartment rise building
Last week, I had the opportunity to witness a panel discussion on the issue of addiction at St. Paul's Hospital. I was somewhat interested in the topic of addiction, but mainly went because it included heavyweights in the field, particularly Alfried Längle whom I had seen previously expound on logotherapy and whom I personally consider the "Dalai Lama of psychotherapy" as well as Gabor Maté who is a bestselling author and the equivalent of a medical superstar. 

Some of Maté's articles I had read online, and I had been impressed by his humanity as well as gutsiness. Finally, there was also Bruce Alexander whom I had not heard of but who proved also quite knowledgeable and who showed serious concern for the environment in both senses of the word, physical surroundings as well as nature.

And so the discussion commenced ten minutes later than planned in front of a filled auditorium with constant heavy rain outside. Längle opened up the panel with his definition of addiction, and I was already baffled. 

He started off showing us that addiction is indeed a very human activity. To be addicted means to be human, to have desires, and to look for their fulfillment. Everyone is addicted to something to some extent. There is essentially nothing wrong with it except when it is done specifically to fill a certain void or used as an escape that eventually causes more harm than good. Immediately, we could feel the warmth and humanity of his view and his focus on existential matters.

Then Maté picked up where Längle had left off yet with a caveat. He mainly agreed with Längle's definition, and he pointed out that most of us are addicted to something or some kinds of repetitive and addictive behavior for different reasons, namely to get a sense of calm, relief, assurance, or what-have-you. 

Yet the issue is whether we do it to escape alienation. In modern times, we have more than ever cases of addiction, but historically there were phases where and when addiction was not a major issue or not much of a problem. It was Bruce Alexander who would elaborate more on this phenomenon and the external influences on addiction.

In the meantime, the main disagreement of Maté was that addiction was according to the actual meaning of the word, a type of slavery. People become enslaved to something and find it very hard to control. They become automatons, thoughtless machines that only exist to gratify those needs and pleasures. 

Maté read a quote from Victor Frankl's book, Längle's teacher and mentor on how there is the stimulus and a response and that the gap in-between is what is called free will, reason, or an operating agent/ego. Although most of us most of the time do respond to situations via reflection, in the case of addicts that response is immediate (he snapped his fingers at this point) and does not include any type of will or decision on the part of the subject.

This observation was the main source of conflict or rather disagreement between Längle and Maté. Längle insisted that we still do have an albeit at times feeble voice of reason between the stimulus and the response among addicts. The idea or goal of therapy would be to give empowerment and strength to that voice so that the afflicted addict can gradually break the habit and manage to break free from those shackles.

In fact, in most cases people do not become addicted right away, but it builds up perhaps with a drink or two leading to increased amounts over time. At all times, there is a decision, a voice saying yes (or no) to certain actions; rarely is there an automatic reaction from the onset. It is more a case of losing control than a complete loss of control.

There were some interesting observations about genetic as well as environmental factors that were brought up as well. Certainly, some have genetic predispositions, but most of the addicts have had some kind of trauma in their past leading them towards addictive behaviors. In Längle's words, this was trauma that has not been integrated creating the need for escape by various means. Maté pointed out that most of the addicts had experienced sexual abuse.

But one of the main conflicts of the night was whether addicts do have a still operating will or decision-making process. The danger or the downside of such a view was according to Maté that people could accuse the addict of somehow or other being responsible for their addiction. 

That is when the white-haired Austrian Längle with the calm, measured, and soothing voice surprised me. Längle said if people were to construe his words in this manner, he would drop his perspective and theory altogether. To blame the addicts for their plight was definitely not his intended meaning; in fact, he meant the exact opposite. Here we see his humanitarian concern over simply being right and that he was even ready to sacrifice his own views for the benefit of others.

At that point, it seemed that the outspoken Maté had won the debate. But Längle would still not leave without a fight. Maté had challenged him to give a definition of free will. Längle gave the fact that despite constraints and strong forces from both within and without, there was a singular and personal voice regarding that situation. 

And yet, there were people who did not want to leave their addiction and that was fine. He had one particular patient who would see him on a regular basis saying that he did not want to drop his addiction.

Maté asked him why was that man going to see a psychotherapist in the first place. To that Längle responded that it was because that person enjoyed the human contact, the fact that he could reach out to another person, a human being who did not immediately judge or scold him for his actions.

Längle also said that if people followed their addictive behavior with mindfulness, then it was not as bad. For example, if a smoker enjoys their cigarettes, this is all right. It should not become a mere and thoughtless habit. People should be and become aware of their actions, and only if they sincerely and genuinely wish to quit their addiction, should they do so.

Then Maté argued what about people with obsessive-compulsive behavior. They would rather not choose to wash their hands a hundred times before leaving the building. Längle responded by saying that unhealthy habits would manifest themselves in different ways in different people. 

Since the person feels isolation and a certain perceived lack of power in situations, they would either seek an escape through addiction or their body would respond with different defense mechanisms to stressors, such as diseases like cancer or mental health issues like depression or at its worst even suicide.

In fact, the word dis-ease shows that the body and/or mind are not at ease, not balanced and that it is in many cases simply a natural response of the body. Such undigested traumas would also lead towards aggressive and dangerous behaviors both towards others as well as oneself. 

At one point, psychotherapist Längle was, in fact, counseling Maté, and it was then that Maté shifted his position and conceded that there was a miniscule moment or gap between the stimulus and the response. So Längle eventually won the debate and claimed that he did not know that Maté was an existentialist to which Maté shrugged and said "whatever that means."

Now I have left out an important voice here, the thoughts and ideas of Bruce Alexander. Although he was not as forceful in his opinions or in this discussion, he had indeed important and significant views on addiction and moreover our modern and alienated life-styles. 

At one point, Alexander said he was not going to blame all the pain and isolation on capitalism (to which Längle retorted, why not, which drew an impromptu applause from the audience). Yet it is capitalism that often creates gaps between people and has more often than not harmful effects on social and personal relationships.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of native people. Historically, they did not have problems or issues with addiction, but in modern times they have been feeling isolated from both their culture as well as the rest of society. 

Also turning people into money-making economic units causes conflicts in the fabric of relationships. As Maté claimed in places like Turkey, people did not merely go to stores to buy things and return home; instead they were often offered tea or coffee in the neighborhood stores.

In fact, neighborhood stores, which are a source of meeting and greeting people within the community have become more a thing of the past due to big impersonal superstores like Wal-Mart. We have lost touch with personalized service and instead are dealing with mass-produced commercial items for mass consumers like us. 

Maté also noted with regret that Fisher-Price was selling car seats for one-year-olds that came integrated with an iPad holder. People are becoming and have become enslaved to technology at the expense of relationships with nature and with real people.

On the issue of nature, Bruce Alexander had more to say. We exploit nature, but it is us who have become impoverished as a result. We have lost touch with our core and principal values and live in a materialistic world filled with voids. We have become globalized and are dealing with significant amounts of anxiety and depression. 

All of this has not made our life more convenient or happy, but quite to the contrary. It comes as no surprise that substance abuse has increased in addition to health issues, both physical as well as mental.

Life is filled with pain, and we have to find our way through it without getting too bruised and damaged by it. This may sound rather pessimistic, but the hope is that we can manage to have healthier lives if we face ourselves and the issues that confront us head-on. Even when situations seem hopeless and there is no way out, there is a small ray of hope that can get us out of the prison we have essentially created (for) ourselves.

In some cases, psychotherapy can help us, but generally, it is both about accepting oneself in one's precious and invaluable uniqueness and accepting and caring about others around us. Once we realize that it was merely our own faulty perception or illusion that we have a void within us and that, in fact, we have and always had what we needed most at our own hands and disposal, then issues like addiction or diseases may become easier to control and deal with.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fate and Destiny in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire

Questions on fate and love
The movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by British director Danny Boyle has achieved that rare feat of satisfying film critics and audiences alike. It is one of the best works of this very talented director. However, upon my first viewing, I was not as enthusiastic about the film. I had been somewhat impressed with it in terms of editing and its magnificent energy boosted by a great soundtrack, but I had erroneously dismissed it as another successful crowd-pleaser. I had brushed it off as light entertainment and did not fully understand the critical hype around this film, which included winning an outstanding eight Oscars (incidentally more than one of my all-time favorite films, the brilliant classic Lawrence of Arabia made by David Lean in 1962).

So what made me change my mind about Slumdog Millionaire? I think although the movie does well on a number of levels and layers, I had not fully appreciated the intricacy of its script, that is, its philosophical premise and weight. It had struck me as a fairy tale albeit interspersed with moments of unflinching but restrained brutality involving torture and other traumatic experiences. To my defense, this movie is such a genre bender -- drama, action, romance, you name it -- and has a lot of glitz and dazzle so that one can miss out on how intricate the philosophical message is.

First off, this movie is rare in the sense that it is spoiler-proof. I cannot really give away anything here. While the ending may be predictable, it is still poignant; in fact, I was even more moved the second time around than when I first saw this gem.

Basically the main premise is this: A young man Jamal who has suffered a great deal in life enters the Indian version of the “Who wants to be a millionaire” contest and somehow despite his lack of education knows all the correct answers. This arouses suspicion among the authorities, and the young man is accused of cheating.

But the key to his success lies in his past. It seems that all his life has oddly enough only served this main purpose, namely to prepare him for the show that would turn him into a millionaire. Boyle has made other movies that involved suddenly and surprisingly attaining loads of cash in both Shallow Grave (1994) and the surprisingly heartwarming, moving and funny Millions (2004), but in the case of Slumdog Millionaire the money is used as an excuse or mere pretext; it serves as the young man's desperate but determined plan and means of getting the girl of his dreams Latika.

Jamal's life story is told in flashbacks and in direct relation to the posed questions on the popular game show (the novel this movie is based on is entitled Q and A and makes this link somewhat clearer). For example, Jamal knows the name of an Indian movie star because he fought hard to get his autograph. Jamal's mean-spirited brother locked him inside an outhouse, but the resourceful boy manages to escape underneath and shows up all covered in feces (I read on IMDb it was actually peanut butter mixed with chocolate). So he eventually asks for the long-awaited and much desired autograph. From the beginning of his life, we can see he is determined and obstinate in getting what he wants.

More interestingly, he knows which US president is portrayed on the 100 dollar bill because of his own heartfelt and sincere generosity. Jamal gives money to a blind boy who tells him that it is Ben Franklin's face that can be found on the bill. Had Jamal not decided to give him the money, he would never have known the answer to that question. So in a way, it is pure karma that is preserved then and passed on. Our ethical and generous actions may not be immediately rewarded, but they will be in due time and course.

Although a lot of the answers to the questions bring up painful memories, including his mother's senseless and brutal slaughter during a religious riot, it seems that everything was predetermined, in other words, fate. I love the idea that everything that happens to us, no matter how good or bad serves a distinct and distinctive purpose. We may not see and understand it in the heat or burning suffering of the moment, but it seems part of a larger plan of the cosmos, the eventual fulfillment of the Logos.

It is this realization that made me embrace this film with my whole heart. It so happens that when two people find each other, in this case our star-crossed lovers Jamal and Latika, it was all meant to happen and every detail in the movie and in life in general may be nothing but a footnote towards this one moment of bliss. So it happens in romance when people meet their soul-mates sometimes seemingly against all odds.

But the overall outlook is not a mere waiting for good things to fall into your lap, but to always make it happen. There were many times where Jamal could have merely given up or taken the easy way out. But he did not. Even at the very last where he is unfairly tortured, he keeps holding onto his dreams, his driving force of hope.

And it seems that all this time, even if it seemed otherwise at certain desolate moments, fortune, or call it luck or destiny had always been smiling and winking at him. Hence the final embrace and yes even the dance number give us a warm tingling feeling that deep down regardless of its rough and tough surface everything is all right and immensely beautiful and simply divine.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Capitalism needs a Heart

Child with Guy Fawkes Mask

Normally, we do not link virtues like compassion and empathy with the notion of capitalism. It seems that within capitalism, there is not much room for benevolence, but capitalism has rather an ingrained and deeply embedded love and adoration for money, which is, in its extent and degree not unlike the awe and fascination with God when it comes to religion. The sheer existence and raison d'être of capitalism are the profits that are connected with it. Put differently, a capitalist who fails to make money is considered a loser, or worse, an utter failure.

That appears to be the root of most of the problems, and therein lies the root of evil essentially. It is not money itself, which is merely a tool and can be used for beneficial and compassionate purposes, but it is the undying love and reverence attached to it, which lurks its ugly head as corporate greed. Money becomes tainted and sullied with one's crass and grandiose ambitions, which often occur at the expense of one's own humanity.

To say that I do not appreciate, respect or even love money would be erroneous. To ask me -- or most of us -- to give it all away or to share it freely with others would be ranging from heroic deed to downright folly. Money especially if earned and accumulated by the sweat of the brow or by the works of wit and creativity is entirely a matter of entitlement.

However, my savings account pales in comparison with those who have more than million-fold their basic demands and necessities for various lifetimes down the road. My dream of one day owning four walls may merely remain that, namely a dream, but I would never dream of owning a yacht or my private jet. Now that to me seems outright folly.

Why you may ask. In the past, we have had millionaires or at the very top multi-millionaires. That seemed in itself quite a big deal, but now, even with inflation counted in, we have billionaires. This is an amount of money I cannot even imagine, let alone count or run through my hands. In fact, it is, by all means and standards, a ludicrous amount.

The question that I often ask myself is the following: How did these people become so filthy (to use a more benign f-word here) rich? In many cases, I am aware that it comes through hard work and perhaps with the right amount of luck, but still this must be someone's hard-earned money from somewhere. It is money tainted with sweat and worse, even blood.

It might be a factory worker working away all day for a fraction of a fraction, for a salary which may (or may not) help her to get by barely. These profits that show up on the rich person’s bank account may be a large chunk of someone's salary who is not starving but who has fallen into the consumerist trap of buying useless (and perhaps worthless) things to make him feel happy. That happiness literally comes at a cost and may only last for a little while, and it may give him something to brag about for a moment or two.

This is the situation and scenario in the most harmless or most ethical of cases. I will not go into cases where illegal or quasi-legal transactions or investments lead to (undeserved and unmerited) capitalist gain. Those are evidently seen as wrong, but our focus here is those legitimate businesses that squeeze profits by squeezing the general public's pockets.

This is how it is in the capitalist world; you may hear its proponents say. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The games and opportunities are open for anyone who takes a risk or who works hard enough. Even you can partake of the beautiful staple American dream if you only try hard (and long) enough.

But the game is rigged. The American dream is exactly that, namely a dream, if not a downright lie. In a capitalist system, there cannot be winners only. In a sport event it may be all about participating, but in capitalism the line is drawn quite clearly between the haves and the have-nots. You cannot have your cake and eat it too because the cake has already been eaten, including crumbs.

Here I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma. We could eradicate poverty in our city, country or even the world if those with more than nine figures to their name actually showed some heart. If they realized that money is not everything and that what they have gained through work or exploitation can be used for the benefit and happiness of others.

It angers me to see people not have enough, while others delve and swim in money substantially and significantly beyond their possible needs. Sure we could ask that everybody ought to give a hand to stop poverty or this type of injustice, but much more can be achieved by those who have more than necessary resources. If one day (and God bless the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who are showing at least some initiative in this direction) the wealthy said we have more than enough and let us give away a large sum of our money to help others from starving and from suffering in their daily life because those states and situations are simply wrong and unacceptable.

In fact, let us change policies that benefit us only (I am speaking for the rich or rather in the name of the wealthy hypothetically speaking) and let us allow or better let us put pressure on politicians to pass laws that do not merely benefit the rich but laws that are truly fair and equitable. Let us give instead of taking because we have already taken more than we can handle in a single lifetime.

Recently, I attended an interesting and moving (or downright depressing) talk that dealt with issues of poverty. In that case, the solution was seen as treating poverty as a disease and to show the government that prevention was the best method. The speaker Gary Bloch, being a doctor and an activist knew what he was talking about both because of his profession and experience with working with the poor in Canada. He and others that evening suggested and demonstrated that by investing into poverty reduction, everyone would benefit; it even made sense economically as the government (and hence taxpayers) would eventually save money down the road. 
Although it would be a noble aim to act as conscious and compassionate citizens, all in all, that would be the proverbial drop on a hot stone. Each of us has responsibilities to change things for the better, of course. We want to become more ethical, more aware, more socially and politically active.

But instead of a bottom-up approach, saving pennies and making small adjustments, if we could only reach the very top and touch the hearts of those who have enough resources to make or break whole nations, then we could make even bigger strides. Let us add compassion and heart into the equation of capitalism and let us peel away from it all that is bad and harmful. We do not want to be left with a gaping and open wound and abyss between the top 1% and all the rest of us significantly down below. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on After Purgatory: Death in the Reformation Talk

The road curves into tree-covered area
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the erudite historian Peter Marshall with the intriguing full title After Purgatory: Death and Remembrance in the Reformation World at the SFU Harbour Centre. I was quite impressed with the material as I find history of religion, particularly the divide between Catholics and Prostestants, most intriguing. In addition, the speaker not only showed knowledge and expertise alongside humour and humility, but most importantly, he was able to answer my questions in a clear and elaborate manner.

Since there were -- rather unfortunately -- not too many people attending and I had chosen the third row of seats being solitary in my own aisle, I must have been quite visible. Normally this would not pose a problem, but I have recently started taking notes on my iPhone. I looked around and noticed that others, perhaps more professional-looking people, had chosen the old-fashioned form of the scribbling pen on blank notebooks.

However that kind of note-taking is more cumbersome, less legible, and it does not have the auto-correct option. Although the latter can at times be annoying with its farfetched and illogical suggestions, I find it helps me save time, so I end up typing faster. The downside is the negative stigma attached to iPhones: it might seem that I was texting and not paying attention.

In this case, it was quite the opposite, and, incidentally, my phone was out of service for some odd reason, which made texting or surfing the Internet literally impossible. At one point during the talk, I felt compelled to make that matter clear to all the attendees present, but that would have made me look even weirder in their eyes.

But enough preamble about me and let us get to the meat of this brilliant and informative talk. The starting point and focus was how the Protestant movement got rid of the notion of Purgatory, which brought about a number of religious, social, and political changes regarding the outlook on death, its significance for people's lives as well as funeral practices.

With the abolition of Purgatory, it meant that there could be no change in the afterlife. So if you were damned or saved, it had already been decided by your life previously in this world; there was no in-between in the afterlife. As a result, it would become useless to pray for the departed since it was too late for any kind of changes anyway.

In such a situation, death becomes a more crucial and singular event that terminates life once and for all and for better or for worse. That also puts one's life more into focus; it becomes more important regarding salvation. In existential terms, it means that you have one shot at it, and if you miss the mark, i.e. spiritual salvation, there is absolutely no going back and no reconsideration. No pressure, but it is merely the slight difference between eternal bliss or never-ending pain and suffering.

This sudden disconnect between life and death, and ipso facto, with the living and the dead affected and changed the funeral practices as well. While previous to the Reformation, tombs would be prospective, namely looking forward toward the life that was ahead after death, the Protestant tombs were retrospective and mostly individual, looking back at the life and accomplishments of the deceased in question.

In this way, the tombstones acquire and gain a more biographical and existential tone. You are responsible for your own success or failures and this world is the playing field in which you need to show and prove yourself. No more reliance on goodwill and wishes of others or of saints carrying you towards heaven. You got to do this on your own merits.

All of this also meant that funeral practices changed. Funeral sermons now were less about the dead and the afterlife, but more about teaching a lesson to those who were still living. Funerals were indeed a good way to teach about the doctrine of death, that each of us may be called before the Almighty and that we ought to be ready at all times with a calm mind and a peaceful heart.

One of the interesting differences between the Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints was the representation of Christ; his suffering was highlighted by Catholics, but with Protestants his redeeming aspects tended to be promoted instead.

Another difference was also the simplicity and minimalism – to use an anachronistic word for the sake of it - of the funeral practices when it came to the Protestants. No music should be played and sung, and in fact, prayers for the dead were generally discouraged. Also, even Protestant leaders like Calvin were buried with no pomp or circumstance; according to his own wishes, he found himself in an unmarked grave (more on this a bit later).

Another interesting tidbit was regarding the type and manner of death. Generally speaking, people considered a “good death” as something to be aimed for but also as a way to validate one's life and salvation. For example, if you died painlessly and unawares in your sleep, it may seem that you were blessed. But if you underwent a painful, excruciating death, that meant, according to popular beliefs at the time, that you were probably not going to make it very far even in the afterlife.

Striving to have a peaceful and dignified end was also seen as a confirmation that God was with you. One's own serenity towards death was equally an important factor. So even in matters of death, it became important to control oneself and to pray that it would be quick and painless. And those famous last words may ring through eternity for and by other generations to come in this world, so you'd better make them significant and meaningful.

Marshall also mentioned the Protestant belief that death may appear like a sleep in transition towards resurrection when both soul and body would reunite. In this case, the dead were ideally given a proper burial with their feet facing the East, where Jesus would return in Jerusalem, and the face of the deceased looking upward so that the dead would simply arise without any difficulties.

This also made the punishment for suicide, heresies or any other misdeeds that led to ex-communication a more grave matter beyond this life of ours. A person who had committed suicide, for example, would be left on the crossroads, which is supposed to be confusing for the soul and where the devil usually resides. This view of death also led to horrible acts of mutilation of the deceased in a number of wars and conflicts, which were gruesome both in actual and symbolic fashion.

All of this raised interesting questions regarding the manifestation of spirits, which Protestants believed to be not incarnations of the person but rather a plaything of demons to confuse humans. Their reasoning was simple: the dead were either in heaven or hell and either way would not be able to travel back to Earth. 

This was also the main reason why Hamlet was not sure whether he was confronted with the ghost of his own father or whether it was a trick put on by a maleficent demon or goblin. However, in most cases, popular opinion sided on the fact that they were indeed real ghosts of the departed.

Then there was the question period, and I could not resist. My question was two-fold. One was about the fact that Protestant belief with the negation of Purgatory seems to be more pessimistic and fatalistic than the Catholic view. It took away hope for those who might fall in the middle ground and sent them straight either to heaven or hell.

Marshall answered the question by assuring me that Purgatory with all its perks was not necessarily cheery or hopeful as it involved burning and torture for thousands of years. Secondly, Protestants often had the (false?) assurance –- commonly referred to as predestination or divine grace -- that they were already saved and that gave them hope and confidence for the life to come.

My second question was how the soul could find the body in the particular case of Calvin who was buried in an unmarked grave. How would his soul recognize his own body if there was no name attached to it? Here Marshall claimed that Protestants also believed that the soul would already know and recognize the body wherever it might be, even if it were devoured by a cannibal who in turn had been eaten by a lion. Good to know.

So, all in all, I was fascinated by this talk and for the span of an hour and a half had become completely oblivious to my own problem of not having any service or signal during the whole afternoon. This is one of the main downsides of living in a developed world where if you do not have an Internet connection you are as good as dead. And even Purgatory won't save you then!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On the Reproduction of Capitalism Book Review

Book Cover with white letters on black background

In his book On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser expounds his ideas on capitalism with its daily operations and functions, while highlighting Marxist theory in its revolutionary purpose to overturn the capitalist way of life.

For the most part (with the exception of occasional philanthropy here and there), virtues like compassion and empathy are incompatible with the notion of capitalism. In a sense, Althusser may be right that capitalism means exploitation of the workers. It must be so because capitalism is about money and profits.

If you have the capital to purchase land or a business, you can hire people (labor) to work for you; in exchange you give them money or compensation for their work and time (a wage). The lower the wages, the higher your gains. There is then no wonder that minimum wages work on bare minimums, meaning people barely make enough to get by.

However, in order to ensure the continuous existence (or reproduction of relations) of capitalism, people need to be imbued with the idea that capitalism despite its glaring greed and injustice is actually fair and beneficial for everyone involved. 

This (false) impression is created in a number of ways, primarily through the ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses). In fact, according to Louis Althusser, pretty much any ideology one can think of could be summed up under the umbrella domain of one and the same state ideology.

For Althusser, ideology is material and for the most part it serves the state and the continuing exploitation of the dominated classes, i.e. the working class. For example, the church is more often than not in line with the bourgeoisie as this particular economic and political system and relationship benefit the clergy (and their pockets) quite well. 

This has been done throughout history when the Catholic Church supported worldly leaders, kings and emperors. Although religion still has a stronghold on people today, the functions of the church have been mostly replaced by the educational state apparatus.

Schools are to ensure that both discipline and respect for authority and for the law are instilled and drilled at an early age. These ideas are taken up and propagated by the family institution as well. By having people obey the given rules, it is mainly the capitalist system that reaps benefits as there is little disruption to its functioning.

In case of possible trouble or conflicts, there is always the law. The law, Althusser believes, is a capitalist creation of the bourgeoisie which under the guise of liberty and equality mainly benefits a select few, namely the rich. 

It is the wealthy that have the power and access to circumvent law through loopholes and other means. In the meantime, the rest of the populace take laws to be fair and just and equally accessible to everyone, ideological lies that are served to the masses.

If the law is not followed by the masses, the repressive state apparatus with police, riot force and ultimately the military are called in to ensure that it is followed to the letter. Yet that is the exception not the norm; for the most part, people are taught to respect the law so that it becomes internalized and such disruptions can then be avoided with preventive and preemptive manners.

For example, most people follow the law and believe in its intrinsic value, that it is a moral and right thing to do. In all those instances, the ideological foundations of the person make the use of force both redundant and unnecessary in most of everyday life.

(How often do we take it as a "normal" thing to wake up early, show up at work, take abuse or loads of work and pressure from our bosses only to go home and to have the same occur day in day out. Rarely do we challenge our bosses because that is not what good workers are supposed to do; they need to behave and follow orders from perceived authority figures, the manager, so no need to call the police to settle issues.)

However, at certain times where there is open defiance and revolt, for example the May '68 events that were occurring during the time Althusser was writing this book, the riot police and military need to ensure that the capitalist system is not endangered or injured in the process.

According to Communist ideology a successful revolution ought to ensure that the bourgeois state apparatus is completely destroyed and replaced with a new kind of system (Althusser seems rather vague on what and how this new system should or would look like). This type of overturning the state had occurred only partly during the French Revolution because the bourgeoisie managed to take control over the state. They had successfully disposed of the aristocracy but now the bourgeoisie themselves, the growing merchant class, began to call the shots and to oppress the workers, the proletariat.

There are some fascinating bits in this book. Althusser's discussion of ideology and the state apparatus are interesting, timely, and relevant in a number of ways. It must have had some influence on works by Noam Chomsky, especially his Manufacturing Consent. We can see it today since people are constantly brainwashed by media, sports, and politics, not to mention culture and religion, all of which have parts and components that benefit the ruling class, the capitalists.

I was most impressed with his discussion of individuals and subjects. Althusser claims that we are all subjects and have lost our individual freedom and autonomy contrary to what we may think in the Western world. Subject, in fact, is an ambiguous term, which could alternatively mean either a person who acts freely and of his own accord (as a noun) or its exact opposite, that is, a person who is studied or is following enforced rules and regulations he is subjected to (as a verb).

Althusser claims that we are subjects even before we are born, as we are born into a family that has expectations and preconceived notions about us and our gender. In fact, we are passive from the onset since our names are chosen and given to us by others. Add to that cultural and religious practices and the ensuing years of schooling, and we can see that we are greased cogs in a capitalist machine.

In fact, Althusser gives a brilliant explanation of religion, which is to him an ideology that subjects all of us. Any ideology presupposes that we recognize ourselves in them (otherwise they would be quite useless). So, for example, me, that is my name and all the properties attached to what makes me who I (think I) am, would recognize myself as being a Christian. This is followed by a number of highly ritualized practices, such as baptism, going to church, praying etc all of which makes me - or rather is supposed to make me - a good Christian.

But all of this occurs and is done because it is seen as relevant to me and my life. That means that there is a guarantee that I will personally benefit from this particular ideology I have espoused and the belief or faith that this is indeed true, that, for instance, God actually exists and will reward me (after my death!) for my continuous efforts of being a good Christian.

In that sense, God would be the Subject that is dominant over all his subjects on this planet. It would mean that God would need humans who are created in his image. This would make him as dependent on us as we are on him. God could not be God without being recognized as God by us humans. In other words, he needs us and he is, in fact, able to put up with our unruly and sinful behaviors because it is better than nothing. (This could be why he saved Noah and his family from the Flood, out of basic necessity not out of compassion or love).

Evidently, there is a touch of Hegel in here, especially regarding his ideas of God (the Father) bridging the gap between the divine and humans by “duplicating” himself as a human, Jesus (the Son), who is both man and God, while the Holy Spirit is the mirror-connection, image or glue between the two. All this is fascinating and makes the open-minded theists scratch their head.

Yet I do have some bones to pick with some of Althusser's ideas. First off, he as well as Communist ideology in general rather seem vague on a number of points, especially when it pertains to what the new state ought to look like. It is like a doctor describing the symptoms quite well without knowing how to cure the disease. 

In fact, it seems that Communist governments have been copying or reproducing the bourgeoisie, particularly in terms of state apparatuses; Communist regimes have come to control and master them rather perfectly as the self-appointed "dictators of the proletariat." So the ISAs may be the same or even worse operating under different names and ideologies.

Secondly, I do not fully share his view on education. I believe I am justifying or representing my own role as an educator here, but I intrinsically believe that education and knowledge open the mind. Of course, education is a broad concept, and there are qualitative differences, but education is overall a means to achieve self-knowledge and freedom because it ideally leads to critical thinking. At least that is my view on what education is or ought to be.

Thirdly, I do not believe that human rights and ethics and even philosophy are all enslaving us to capitalist ideology the same way I do not think that churches necessarily represent true faith. These are, in and of themselves, very worthy and noble ideas and traditions that are unfortunately being used (or rather ab-used) by the authorities to cement their own power and influence. But to claim that ideology per se is an illusion - and hence false - is not something I can accept, which is the main reason I consider myself an idealist not a nihilist.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this book and want to thank Verso Books for publishing such thought-provoking and -inducing works and for also sending it to me for review. This review took me a long time to write (sorry!) because the weighty ideas expressed in them take sufficient time to digest, but this book is definitely worth your time, effort, and yes your money.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy's religious manifesto: The Kingdom of God is within you

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in traditional peasant clothing

Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you is both astonishing and enlightening in many ways. Few are the books that can move me to the degree that Tolstoy's book did. I mean it in both senses of the word, that it touched me by unearthing a number of feelings, desires, dreams and nightmares, but it also transported me, inspiring me to take initiatives and actions. One of those inspired actions would be my decision to write about this excellent book.

I first stumbled upon Tolstoy at the tender and tumultuous age of fifteen. An avid reader then, I took on the major project of reading his monumental War and Peace. At that time, questions on life and death were budding in my mind. In fact, I was hoping to live long enough to finish those 1500+ pages in front of me.

Although I fell in love with the characters (and I can still see them in my mind's eye and have an affinity with them even more than a quarter century later), I was often then - and most likely still - exasperated by the various elaborate digressions of its Russian author.

I remember one lengthy passage about bees that drove me mad, but I dared not skip a single line of this master storyteller. In a way, he is the Terrence Malick of literature, or rather, not to be anachronistic, it ought to be the other way around. Anyhow, I was given lectures on biology and history in the frames of a fictional narrative. 

A decade after reading War and Peace, I read - and was very impressed with - Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy controlled and restrained his tendency to be wordy and wrote a much better and more concise work, though it still spans hundreds of pages.

For years I had the intention of reading his nonfiction book The Kingdom of God is within you, but for one reason or another it remained on the back-burner for years to come. I had heard and read about Tolstoy becoming a type of prophet or mystical figure towards the later years of his life, and I had become aware that this particular piece of writing, especially the notions surrounding non-violent resistance towards violence, had influenced great thinkers, and shakers and movers of history, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Tolstoy has been described in many terms but few do him and his views full justice. His views are radical, yes, but this word has particular negative connotations regardless of its direction or political spectrum. He is also called an anarchist, a revolutionary, a liberal, a communist etc, but his actual views are much more complex. Most importantly, I think this work is timeless and can and should - for the most part at least - be applied to our modern times.

Let us start off with Tolstoy's religious views. Ironically, some intellectuals may be turned off by its title as it sounds as if it were a Christian propaganda piece. It is and it is not, but for the most part it attacks religions, in particular Christian institutions, with a venom that will make any traditional pastor's or priest's head spin. 

Religious people, or rather those who claim they embrace religion, will be bitterly disappointed, whereas those with a spiritual bone or two in them might find their calling here, that is if they get past the first barrier of actually picking up and reading this book despite its Christian title.

Finally, I found somebody who shares my view on religion and Christianity and explains it with much more skill than I ever could. The focus remains on Jesus Christ who was not only an exceptional being but who put the seeds of love and change in our hearts. Unfortunately, the authorities, i.e. the (not so holy) church took his teachings and turned them upside down and inside out to suit their own quest for power.

What the religious authorities wanted was to use the “convenient” parts of Christ's teachings. So far, Tolstoy may be even on par with Nietzsche's own view of Christianity. The church assumed control over the salvation of souls and became self-proclaimed ambassadors of God. They created a hierarchy and hence a gaping distance between themselves and the common people.

Historically, this could be done as only few in the elite were literate. So most people would get the watered down, revised, edited and censured version of Christianity. Various inconvenient or unconducive passages were conveniently glossed over or overlooked. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of god is within you? Does that not make the whole charade surrounding the church superfluous?

Tolstoy also remarks that if the church ought to play such a large role in Christianity, why did Jesus not give specific instructions regarding its set-up and functions. We mainly have a vague insinuation to his disciple about a rock. And did Jesus not attack those who claimed to know the truth, i.e. the very same priests and did he not say that those buildings shall be destroyed? It seems that Jesus was against not only empty rituals but the whole foundation of a church operating in the name of God, a church that, even in his own times, was more interested in money-lending and profiteering than spiritual growth and enlightenment.

And last, but most importantly, does Jesus not tell us to turn the other cheek? Does he not condemn any type of violence and replace it with love and forgiveness? Does he not forbid us to hurt others? Then how can the church defend its recorded history of bloody torture and slaughter of millions and millions under the banner of Crusades, religious wars, witch hunts and heresies?

In fact, killing a fellow being is as unchristian as can be. And yet, it is continuously done in the name of God, and many believers turn a blind eye towards it, or worse, defend it. Tolstoy claims that the church definitely turned away from the teachings of Jesus when it allied itself with the emperors to gain wealth and power.

Throughout history, the ruling men were seen as chosen by God. Evidently, the church played a major role in this perception by endorsing their chosen candidate. In return, the governing elite ensured the propagation of the religious views and protection of the religious institutions. This was hundreds of years of brainwashing in the making.

By not choosing to live like Christ, but merely by inventing stories and effectively lies on things hardly even mentioned in the Bible itself, such as Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, or the Holy Trinity, and by insisting on a number of carefully selected rituals, the church not only took over control over people's lives, but diminished their capabilities and powers.

In fact, the most important rituals of life were being ordained by the church: birth through baptism, marriage, the birth of one's own children, and death. There was – and is – no repose from the grasps of the church. Our life is controlled, managed and overseen by the religious authorities.

Indeed, they have found out our innermost secrets through confessions. This is where you share your intimate thoughts and desires with a complete stranger who with a few words of reassurance sends us back into the world again, a free but psychologically binding and limiting form of psychotherapy. Since the priest is the intermediary of Christ, we have done our duty by merely exposing ourselves, and now we are all forgiven through his magical incantations; he is putting in a good word with God on our behalf.

The protestants rebelled against the power of the priests, but they replaced it with an even more submissive and counterproductive ordeal. The issue of faith now made it easier for the individual to communicate with God, while the religious institutions were stripped of their pompousness and magnificence.

But it turned out that faith was something that you either possess or you do not, or you are given it by the Holy Ghost or not, and hence if He does not visit you, you might just not be chosen to enter this selective membership club. Also, your sins will all be forgiven, if only you believe. So you may serve in the army and kill others, but as long as you have faith, you will be cleansed of the blood staining your hands.

This lack of accountability has led people to ignore not only their own hideous actions, but also those of others. Official authorities simply must know better because they have strong faith, which we as commoners lack. But also, there is no particular need to improve the self or the world since faith, not love, is all you need.

But Christ – alongside Tolstoy - asks much more from his true believers. First of all, we must have only one master. You cannot swear allegiance both to God and the state, for example. Second, you shall not, under any circumstance resort to violence. That is, you shall refuse to serve in the military.

Tolstoy claims, and this is before two World Wars and atomic bombs, that the states are buffing up their army and weapons to gain control over others. They do so claiming that they want to protect us from other nations. But it is a vicious cycle. The more armies they build, the more other nations need to to keep up and be on par. This can only have dangerous consequences.

So, as a result, one should not add fuel to the fire and refrain from any type of service, military or otherwise, that supports this kind of harmful action. This is indeed what certain Christian groups have taken to heart, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish. They will not use weapons not even for protection or self-defense.

Tolstoy also stresses the fact that our taxes are going towards building weapons of destruction, and we ought to stop paying them. In fact, he goes even further and points out that the rich owe their wealth to the exploitation of the poor, and hence this money comes tainted with sweat, blood, and suffering, apart from reeking of injustice.

In the meantime, the rich are supported by the state and clergy, of course. So if the poor decide to go on a strike, they shall be first warned by the police and then beaten into submission, arrested or even killed by the military. Any person with good conscience should stay away from these official positions that use not only violence but do so to support the status quo of the already powerful and abusive rich.

In fact, people enlist in the army because they either think they have no other option, or they have been hypnotized by their surroundings, such as schools, institutions, and others, what Louis Althusser would later call the Ideological State Apparatus. One of the most prevalent lies, apart from religion of course, is that of patriotism. People are drilled to think that the random piece of land that they inhabit is worth killing and dying for. They are dressed like “clowns” in uniforms and believe that the stripes and medals they will be given for killing their fellow beings has intrinsic value and honor attached to them. Others are told that they could become martyrs in heaven because they are upholding true values of their motherland or religion.

We can see how Tolstoy is in fact against ideas like communism. He says that any type of revolution is not only violent and bloody but it replaces one tyrant with a worse one. The problem is that the state thinks it can enforce beliefs in its people without changing their lifestyle and way of thinking. As if there is a magic formula that can make people good, or worse, as if you can use force alongside its dark brothers, repression and oppression to change people for the better.

But the good news is that we are all moving forward. Tolstoy's view of the truth is that it cannot be achieved all at once, as it happened to the Buddha, for example; it is a long and continuous process in history. Our views have changed and we have come to accept human rights more and more. It was not without its struggles, but there have been major accomplishments in those regards.

Yet we need to continue to accept these values, which are reflected in a true understanding of Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. We need to follow in his steps and refuse violence in our daily lives. In fact, public opinion is changing around the world, and people have a stronger and more robust conscience regarding what is right and wrong.

We have the answers already planted deep within. Now we must act upon them, while this wave of public opinion has forced the governments to become more accountable or transparent in their dealings. In some cases, they had to become more secretive, namely to hide their atrocious behaviors from the public's eyes. It shows a certain fear of public regard so at the very least they have to constantly fear being exposed in their lies and violence.

The ideal would be to live without states and governments. Tolstoy says it is possible. However, most of us, may either disagree or be afraid of the consequences of such a lifestyle. How is it even possible? Who is going to protect us from the bad guys? Will it not turn to complete anarchy and destruction?

Not if we embrace Christianity in its truest sense and if we follow the path lightened by Jesus himself. As a good Christian, we need to share our wealth and must find peace both within and without, in our souls and our surroundings. We must look the truth squarely in the eye and accept our failings and our blessings in equal measure. But perhaps most of all, we should follow the divine voice within us since the kingdom of God is already - and has always been - within us!