Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Curious Case of J. D. Salinger: A Writer’s Dream and Nightmare

Black and white photo of young author of Catcher in the Rye
Salinger burst onto the literary scene with the astounding and breathtaking little novel The Catcher in the Rye, and then, despite stories published here and there, he pretty much vanished and disappeared from the world of literature as well as the general public. He became a famous recluse, and little was known about him, and he revealed little about himself. And yet, so much of himself and his struggles are reflected within his work but even more so in the particular approach that he took towards his work.

Writing became his dharma. It saved his life and kept his sanity more or less intact, a balancing act that was perturbed for life after experiencing up-close and first-hand the many horrors, tragedies, and cruelties of World War II. Although before the war, his dream was to have his stories published in the New Yorker, it was the experience of war that gave form and shaped his most important work, his famous and infamous novel that included the sensitive but struggling and volatile Holden Caulfield, his most memorable character.  

In fact, Salinger had drafts of the novel on him as they were waging war and, in many ways, he credits this book to have saved his life from the madness and atrocities, which had become his reality for a substantial period of time. Holden has been not only shaped by the alienating experiences of growing up in a society that seemed to be solely obsessed with consumerism while purposely or unconsciously ignoring all the other much more important aspects of life and living, but he also had the scars and burning marks of war indelibly imprinted on his flesh and psyche.

Later on, the stories of war seeped into Salinger's short stories as exemplified in his brilliant collection of Nine Stories, which included a few alter egos that did not manage to return with all their f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact and one of whom committed suicide on a perfect day for bananafish.

It was not merely a matter of blending and fitting in with a society that was out of whack and filled with phonies and conformists, a difficult task in itself that Holden would try to leverage alongside his own personal troubles and a deep longing for belonging but also to do so after glimpsing and witnessing the darkest soul of humanity. Add to that, a society that tends to overlook, be unaware or ignore much of this while demonstrating a lack of respect and recognition toward those who sacrifice their lives, bodies, and sanity for our collective peace and well-being: the many veterans of this world.

As a result, writing became Salinger's dharma and his mitzvah. It helped him express his deepest pain, torments, and longing but at the same time, it exceeded the mere drive for fame and recognition. We often hear and inherently believe and abide by the oft-repeated phrases of “publish or perish” and the desire and pride to see and have your name in print. A writer is not considered a serious writer unless they have significant and influential publications under their belt while we still frown upon the recent trend of self-publishing or even blogs such as this one!

As a matter of fact, many of the writer’s dilemmas are accentuated in Salinger. First, the drive to write authentic and honest stories, not just to entertain and make people smile, laugh, and cry but to delve much deeper into the human experience and psyche. To create a piece of work that not only is unique but that lasts and stands the test of time.

And like many artists who embrace and believe in their calling, he is not ready to compromise when it comes to his work. Although some of his stories got published in the New Yorker, they rejected Catcher because they either did not think that it would sell, or they just did not like it, at least as it stood. Yet Salinger would be famously hesitant and suspicious of any notes, changes, or suggestions and would offer his work as as-is and without any ifs and buts. Not only would he not change character traits or endings, but he would also be furious if they added a single comma to his work, something that indeed ended a friendship he had with an editor.

The uncompromising writers are either self-important and inflated with a sense of pride and self-satisfaction or they are geniuses, or perhaps a bit of both. This attitude of “my way or the highway” has been the trademark of many talented and gifted artists, writers, and filmmakers who wished and demanded to stay true to their unique vision regardless of what editors, producers, film critics, or audiences thought of their work or style.

And yet, a certain amount of give and take is sometimes necessary if you want to become published. Notes are there to improve the work and they are generally provided by experts who know the field and market as opposed to a new budding writer. And in many cases, this may be true, but without taking risks and chances and without thinking outside of the box, we would always tread the same ground and not be innovative or groundbreaking.

As such, a small publisher decided to publish the little novel that become a big worldwide hit! Many readers not only resonated with it but identified with the main character and his struggles for authenticity in a fake and superficial world. It has inspired many to do good but in this particular case to do bad too. Three assassinations were said to have been influenced by this novel, making it ipso facto a dangerous piece of literature. Mark David Chapman had not only read the book, but he had it on him the day he shot and killed the universally beloved and admired John Lennon.

The same book that saved its author’s life was allegedly responsible for the slaughter of an innocent person. Although no one would blame Salinger for it, he must have felt guilty and slightly responsible, especially because other attempts were also blamed on this same book. And yet, at the same time, many people felt such a close affinity with the main character that they started to look for and even harass its author. In a world where we need superstars and leaders for supposed guidance and to pin our hopes on, Salinger seemed an unlikely one but his words equally inspired and infected. Notwithstanding, as he himself would say, he was just a writer of fiction, nothing more, nothing less.

The first time I read his novel, I was thoroughly impressed. I was a literary undergrad and it had come under my radar but without the usual fanfare and excitement, and outside of academia. My knowledge of modern literature was (intentionally) limited at the time as my focus was on the 19th century. Many works including popular movies of North America were outside of the realm of my orbit and experience as I had grown up in Germany and was more familiar with Goethe and Schiller and much less so with an American writer by the name of J. D. Salinger.

That helped me to read it with fresh eyes and without preconceived notions. At the time, I was not aware that the book was the purported symbolic assassin of one of my favorite musicians. But I was thoroughly impressed with the book and loved its playful sense of humor in the background and context of a soul-searching identity crisis and the pains of growing up.

It continues to have and count on my admiration. Only recently, I decided to find out more about this reclusive writer and realized that his retreat from literary circles and the world at large was a monk-like insistence on focus and meditation. Salinger was influenced by Zen and Vedantic philosophy and surprisingly enough continued writing to his dying day but vehemently and adamantly refused to publish any of his work.

It was a significant shift from a writer who wants to publish and receive acclaim for their work to someone who wrote for the mere sake of writing. It was a ritual, a form of meditation and exploration of his soul and his life’s purpose. It came at the expense of his personal life as marriages and relationships would evidently suffer and fall apart from this one-track almost blind obsession and dedication of his.

The question that may be posed to a budding writer might go something like this: If you were told that you would never be published, or famous and that you would not make any money from it, would you still continue writing? Most of us would not continue doing so unless it is the expression of who we are.

And yet, we mostly undertake things not for their own sake but for what we expect from them in return. For instance, meditation is done to calm the mind, to look for oneself, for personal development, to grow spiritually, or even to become enlightened. But would you do so if it did not have any purported or tangible benefits?

There are certain things that remain, however. We dance not because we want to enter competitions or look good in front of a crowd or our friends (though some do) but rather for the enjoyment of it. Unlike running, it is not a matter of faster and longer being better nor is it related to covering a distance and getting from point A to point B. It is something that we enjoy doing with others or alone. It is something that we do with a kind of unconditional love, which is so rare in our world and sphere. Replace dancing with listening to music, taking walks, reading, painting, and sculpting and you may catch my drift.

All in all, Salinger is the embodiment of the writer as an artist. He creates not for but just because. Writing is his religion and his psychotherapy. Writing is his escape from the world. Writing is what he (thinks he) does best. Writing is done for himself and his own eyes only and no one else’s. Writing is his obsession and compulsion. It is a dream and a nightmare. It is also what makes his life worth living and enhances the beauty of it all.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Spacetime Flexibility: The Value of Being Flexible instead of Frozen in Space and Time

View of Freeway from a Bus Window
There is a subtle but important difference between being open versus being flexible. In the first one, you are accessible to and do not discriminate against or evaluate information coming in but at the same time, it implies a certain amount of relaxed passivity or laissez-faire. 

However, when you are flexible, while the onus is still on you, you feel and are free to choose between given options and even take the liberty to go back and forth and flip-flop because you are essentially free to choose and are not fixed or bound one way or another.

For me, flexibility is openness plus action, a kind of spontaneity where you can take either the left or the right turn or just continue going straight. A lack of flexibility is a rigid stance and outlook in which there is only one way to get from point A to B and it is often the same well-trodden, known, and familiar path. It is the mindset that chooses routine over experiments and safety over adventure.

With the fixed mindset, you just want to get to your destination without having to worry about this and that, and you try to travel within the established confines of your sphere of comfort, which also means that the trip is essentially devoid of surprises and unexpected outcomes and situations. While we like to be in control of things, that is often not the reality of things and our situation. As a rule, we believe that we are more in control than we actually are.

Recently, I was planning to attend a conference and left my place at a reasonable time to get downtown. As I walked out of the elevator, I noticed a package addressed to my wife. Instead of taking it up to our floor, they had just left it inside the entrance hallway. They must have thought it was close and good enough and taken off. I hesitated for a moment as to how to proceed.

Usually, I would have walked out, gotten on my bus, and then texted her that there was a package patiently waiting for her downstairs. For some reason, I decided to take it up and hand it to her in person. When I finally got to my floor, to my surprise my wife was at the elevator door, and she had already been alerted about the package by the delivery service person.

I quickly handed it to her; she thanked me, and I was out and about. Except that the moment I stepped out, the bus that was destined to take me to my destination shamelessly took off right in front of my eyes! No amount of waving and gesticulating would have changed anything, so I did none of that. Yes, I could have run after the bus like a madman, but I reserve and keep that sort of manic behavior for emergency situations only. 

Yet to my shock and surprise, the next bus was due a dozen minutes later and took more than fifteen minutes to arrive. As I was waiting, I was worried I would not make it to the event on time. It was not a very important event and was simply for pleasure and entertainment and not work-related but still, I could not stand being late for anything, which is part of my German upbringing or past trauma.

I was standing at the bus stop thinking and worrying for a good quarter of an hour, and finally, I got to my destination with a few minutes to spare. At the same time, the event started a good five minutes late anyhow so either way, and even in the worst-case scenario, I would have been perfectly fine.

And yet, I spent or rather wasted various minutes worrying about nothing. Not only that but I was frozen in space and time, which is what stress and worry can do to you. It was not fight-or-flight for me but it was being stuck and immobile while passively and even helplessly waiting for the bus to come and cursing that it was late as it was wont to be as a part of our wobbly and unpredictable transit system (quite the contrast to the precise and well-oiled transit of my German hometown).

Yet let us rewind the whole situation and play it again. In this alternate scenario, I would still deliver the package to my wife because that is just how I roll, a gentleman who delivers undelivered packages to loved ones. I would still miss the bus but I would not worry this time around. I would just smile and maybe shake my head. Instead of cursing, I would calmly assess the whole situation.

Suddenly, I would notice things that evaded me the first time around. Not being frozen in spacetime, I would have a clearer and much calmer mind and see various options opening up in front of me. I could have taken the bus in the opposite direction and then switched buses at a different stop. As a matter of fact, two buses passed me by on the other side as I was cursing my luck and worrying about not making it on time.

Or I could have walked. The weather was nice and agreeable enough and I could have made it there in less than half an hour while also adding an element of movement and exercise to the whole situation. Another option that did not occur to me because I was so entrenched in my ways was that I could just return home and not go. The event ended up being mildly interesting, but it was not as mind-blowing as I had expected it to be. But not going, I would have been in limbo with the what-if question and scenario.

Anyhow, this is not a should-I-stay or should-I-go scenario. It is about being aware of one’s options and not feeling stuck or being in a rut. It is easier said than done you may say but that is only half true. It is similar to the saying that you cannot know what you do not know. And yet, and yes rather ironically, if you really want to know what you do not know you are most likely able to know it. The ingrained and repetitive patterns and habits are part of our daily grind and interactions but if we become aware of them, and if we practice a certain level of mindfulness and assess the situation in a calmer and more reflective manner, then options that we failed to see the first time around suddenly appear.

On the grand scale of things, my situation was one of little importance and relevance, but the lesson contained in it can be life-altering and has the potential of changing our situation and life circumstances in drastic and dramatic ways.

The emphasis here is on potential while the onus, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, remains on us. It is not a matter of right or wrong but what is the best thing in our given situation and what feels most right and what is most in tune with who we are at any given moment of our lives. This flexibility will lead us not only to more options and choices to choose and select from but can also increase the enjoyment of our daily lives and a way of discovering and coming into touch with new facets and dimensions of our own being instead of merely feeling stuck and frozen in spacetime.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Kiarostami’s Dah: Ten Snapshots of a Social Movement with the Iranian Society in Motion

Veiled woman with shades at the steering wheel
We often say make the best out of what you got. When it comes to cinema, this comes down to predominantly questions, decisions, and limitations around budget and financing. It may be the budding filmmaker who is full of passion and drive and wants to impress the cinematic world with little resources at hand or the renowned indie filmmaker who is not driven by money and dollar signs and forgoes big budgets to make personal and artful films on a shoestring. And in the case of the acclaimed and world-renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, it was sometimes not enough to limit himself in terms of financing but also intentionally restricting and voluntarily reducing the canvas of filmmaking.

His 2002 film Ten (Dah) is shot entirely in and within the confines of a car with (mostly) stationary cameras and limited angles. This type of personal restriction has been done in cinema with Hitchcock’s brilliant Rope in which he would film in one take (though he did cheat a little), or more recently, the outstanding Locke with Tom Hardy who is for the most part seen driving in a car and talking on the phone or even the French sci-fic movie Oxygen in which the majority of the film is French actress Mélanie Laurent lying down in a cryogenic chamber communicating with her AI assistant and the local police!

The latter movies are in fact action films that somehow despite their apparent limitations in space make the most out of the confinement to create suspense and tension and this underscores not only confidence but also skill and expertise vis-à-vis the art of filmmaking. I still wonder how they managed to pull it off because, by all accounts and purposes, it should have turned out to be as eventful as watching paint dry. Then again, I am also aware of movies shot with massive budgets that are simply a bore and a snooze fest all in one.

Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s film has no action to speak of and his purpose here is not to entertain or dazzle but rather to move and awaken us to social conditions in his country while also pondering about and reevaluating our own lives wherever we may be living and however privileged or unprivileged we may consider ourselves to be. At the same time, the film Ten exposes politics and questionable policies as well as social inequality and injustice in his native country and in many ways, the filmmaker foresaw, if not predicted, the current movement initiated and led by brave women who have suffered (more than enough) from the current system and are now demanding and clamoring for equal rights and a more just and equitable society.

Despite the film’s voluntary restrictions in terms of the scope and canvas of its narrative and filmmaking technique, it provides a wide panorama not merely of Iranian society but also delves into philosophical quandaries around questions on love, marriage, fidelity, and gender differences. In other words, Kiarostami is not solely focused on and does not limit himself to politics, but he wants to spark a light within our consciousness to let us re-think how we live our lives and how we view our relationships as spouses and parents, and what we consider and (mis)take for our priorities in life, for better or for worse.

As mentioned earlier, there is no action to speak of but there is an abundance of colorful and well-drawn characters. It is akin to drawing a detailed vibrant painting with only a few crayons at hand. The whole film is set in a car that is for the most part in motion, an apt symbol for both restlessness as well as a potential for movement and change, and the driver and driving force is an unnamed but fiery and spirited woman. Her pre-adolescent son considers her a bad and selfish mother because she lectures him constantly, does not listen to him, and fails to consider his needs, and, most of all, he resents her getting re-married after the divorce from his biological father.

Later, this same woman gives rides to various other people, ranging from friends and family members to strangers that include an old religious woman as well as a working prostitute. The accusations of her son may be correct as we can see in her interactions, but we can also note a free-spirited curious open-minded woman who accepts everyone and wants to understand others to better understand herself. She is also not afraid of lying in court to get a divorce by falsely accusing her ex-husband of being a junkie. Yet she justifies herself to her son by underscoring the inequalities that exist in the judicial system around rights for women and that she would not have been granted a divorce otherwise.

Daily frustrations and suffering of women are highlighted through various interactions in the car. The old pious selfless woman has very little to her name and she spends all her time constantly praying for others and wishing them well. On the other hand, a young mild-mannered woman who has her hopes up for a man to propose to her only sees that dream shattered to pieces and realizes that her prayers have remained unanswered. As a result, she shaves her head, which can be interpreted as a resignation but at the same time as a sign of revolt. Yet, the driver insists that she looks good and that the new haircut suits her.

The most rebellious and provocative character of them all is the prostitute. She questions the idea of love and even matrimony. She says that married men have sex with her and then receive phone calls from their wives and how these husbands lie to them about being in the office while shamelessly adding that they love them. Why should women restrict themselves to a single man when men do not do so themselves? The prostitute exposes this double standard that exists in various societies around the world and she also deplores and decries the overall lack of female pleasure and stimulation.

In all these depictions, Kiarostami not only draws his characters very well and life-like, but he has enormous sympathy and empathy for them. These people feel real because they are not flawless themselves. Ten begins with the son and ends with him and even though it is about women, the film is essentially framed around this sad and confused boy. I believe that the boy’s view is an important one to consider here but it is also a plight that is often underrepresented and ignored in societies around the world, namely the effects and consequences that adult actions and decisions have on children and more specifically one’s own sons and daughters.

Many considerations come into play, and happiness alongside love is a many-splendored thing with many necessary building blocks, and it is not merely a black-or-white issue nor is it a simple process. Kiarostami understands this, has empathy for all these struggling and yearning characters, and gives us glimpses into human nature with their universal pain, suffering, and frustrations regardless of social class and position. The prostitute herself had been jilted in her younger years, and she has given up any hope for a family and for children and lets the driver know that she has undergone various abortions. Although she plays the role of a strong independent woman, deep down she is also looking for love and affection like all the other women in this film.

It is impressive and often overlooked or downplayed how these women manage and work around the number of limitations and restrictions within their lives that are deeply embedded in the codes of conduct and the discriminating laws of their society. Despite it all, they not only make ends meet but they make the best and most out of it all through their creativity, spirit, inventiveness, and resourcefulness. And they have done so for various decades, if not longer.

However, that should not be and should not remain the status quo. For these questions to be dealt with and addressed, they need a society that is just and fair to all its citizens and that does not discriminate against them. Here we can see the failings of a society that not only overlooks the needs and desires of large swaths of its denizens but actually squashes and tramples them and in the words of the early feminist Sarah Moore Grimké that they ought to take their feet from off women's necks. We see this social movement asking for change, and it is not merely about veils and dress codes around hiding hair but goes much deeper and further than that.

In fact, and perhaps more than ever in today’s world, medieval as well as authoritarian systems will have to face resistance as they do not respect or represent the rights and will of their people. And in this case, it is not merely about making the best out of what you got but asking for immediate and much-needed changes in the fabric of repressive and oppressive societies and political systems everywhere across the world. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Putting all the Cards on the Table: My Journey into Tarot and Cartomancy

Card on the wet street
It all started at the age of sweet sixteen for me. Ironically enough, it occurred at my German high school where my French teacher of all people happened to read my Tarot cards as part of an afternoon show and show-your-talent spectacle on the school premises. Incidentally, the very first card I picked was the Death card though as you may know or guess the reading itself turned out to be not that gloomy after all because every ending, symbolic or not, signals and ushers in a new beginning.

At the time, the topic and question at hand in those days of youth were most likely linked to and associated with a girl, while the wished-for relationship did not materialize – it very rarely did - the fact that there and then I became acquainted with the beautiful and astounding world of Tarot was a spectacle and an unforgettable event in and of itself. This passion and boundless love of mine for cartomancy continues to this day and beyond. In fact, I could not and cannot imagine a life without cards – and no, rest assured, gambling has never been my thing, at least not yet.

My French teacher had struck a chord and lit a match, which sparked a torch with the burning light of wonder and curiosity, and he even told me to which bookstore to go to buy my very own guidebook and deck of cards. To this day, I proudly possess the same book, and this is the reason why my readings since then have involved some translating and juxtaposing from German into the preferred language of choice, be it Farsi, Spanish, or English.

Immediately, I put the Tarot cards to the test, and from the age of sixteen onwards, I have been doing off-and-on readings for myself and for a select group of others, family, and close friends. With each reading, my faith in it has grown exponentially although I must confess that I do not always follow its advice (though I know I should). The readings are all not as fatalistic as many assume them to be they rarely tell me point-blank what will happen but rather give me an overall picture of trends, circumstances, and potential outcomes.

The secret ingredient that glues it all together is my self and my own actions. If I take this particular course of action, the following path will unfold, and I would get from here to there. And if I do not, I will get somewhere else. It is like a wise friend or parent who gives you heartfelt advice, but it is up to you to heed it or not. In fact, in various cases, friends have chosen not to divulge the topic or wish in question and halfway through I already knew not only the question but also the best possible answer to their issue or dilemma.

All this increased my curiosity about its close cousins, such as the I Ching, Eastern philosophy, and mysticism. And then, some years later, as an undergraduate student in Canada, I saw a movie that impressed me. It was the Jules-Verne-inspired The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) by the wonderful master filmmaker Eric Rohmer whom I continue to hold very close to my heart ever since I saw my first film of his L’ami de mon amie, awkwardly translated as Boyfriends and Girlfriends. Although The Green Ray is not my favorite film of his, there was a certain scene that caught my eye and once again lit the torch of curiosity deep inside of me.

The main protagonist would occasionally find seemingly random playing cards on the street. And yet, these cards would always serve as soothsayers especially to her who knew the hidden meaning and the personal message that they transmitted to her. What others would see as a mere coincidence or happenstance, she knew to be a spiritual whisper and echo of truth; based on the specific meaning of the card, she would know what the near future would have in store for her and what her best action would be. All of this leads to a flash of blissful insight at the end of the film brightening not only the horizon but enlightening the recesses of her troubled soul.

My immediate thoughts after seeing the movie? Would it not be grand if I could also find cards on the street? I was aware of the connection and correlation between the regular playing cards and the cards of the Tarot and would be able to interpret them accordingly. And to my surprise and wonder, my wish was granted and ever since that day I have found literally hundreds of cards even across different cities, countries, and continents! And not only myself, but friends and family members have had the great fortune to do so as well and to call me up about specific meanings and interpretations.

Is it magic? Of course, it is! Is it crazy and insane? You bet! Out-of-your-mind crazy and bonkers to boot!

At times, I would be hesitant to mention this to people as they would either think that I was raving mad or that I was lying and either one of those choices did not sit too well with me. That may be part of the reason why I would pick up the cards whenever possible and take them home with me; as a result, I have now a stack of random cards that I tend to use as bookmarks. But if people find it hard to believe, I understand and sympathize but whether we see or believe it or not, there is indeed more to the world than is apparent to the eye.

Over more than thirty years, they have given me the heads up, the thumbs up, or the lowdown of what was to come in my future - near and far - and that has helped me to be better prepared for everything and anything coming my way. The best thing would be that it would occur sporadically and spontaneously. There would be a period of time when I would find different cards one following upon the other and sometimes even half a deck. Then, it would be quiet, and I would ask myself “I wonder when I will find another one.” And at other times, I would seek guidance and wish and hope to find something to tell me where I was at and what would be coming my way. I find finding cards to be more organic in nature as opposed to doing an intentional reading for myself. Sometimes I would have to be patient and wait for a while until I found another one.

Countless decisions have been made and supported by a lucky card found at crucial and sometimes life-changing moments in my life. For instance, when I first met my wife, I found a very fortunate and uplifting card on the streets of Mexico (the wonderful nine of coins!) giving me the proverbial green light or ray. I knew then that she would be the right choice, my life partner and hopefully partner for life.

It is not always clear and smooth sailing in life, relationships, and cartomancy. On the contrary, when they are warning me of coming misfortune and impending doom, I have accepted it with a heavy but grateful heart. At least it would not come to me as a complete surprise. And that way, I would be better prepared and equipped to deal with the given issue or misfortune.

The most baffling cards I found on the street were actual Tarot cards. A few years back, I found The World card. Now this is doubly awesome and astounding. First, the card came in French, a nod to three French-inspired instances in my life: one, my German French teacher; second, the wonderful aforementioned French filmmaker, and third, my main livelihood is teaching French, the field I have intensely and intensively studied for years at school and at university.

The final “coincidence”? If you don’t already know – you arrived on a random click, got here by accident, or were just curious about cards and cartomancy - then take a quick peek at the title of this blog. I found the cards years after this blog’s creation and my blog has been my heart and soul for all these years and has even become and turned into a podcast since the pandemic. This is my world, which I like to share with you and with your world. May it also light a torch deep within you at best, and at the very least, may it be a source of entertainment and some food or snack for thought.

And now that you have read this, keep your eyes peeled on the road. Just recently, my son has found his own first couple of cards (one of them is depicted here as a photo!). I find it a blessing. I cannot explain it, nor do I understand who would “lose” or put all these cards on the ground but they have been both meaningful and very helpful and always reassuring. Next time you find a card and believe me you will, then drop me line to tell me about it, and if you need guidance in terms of meaning and interpretation, do not hesitate to ask, and I would most gladly oblige. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Midsommar: Excessive Collectivism and the Death of the Individual

Still from the movie with white-clad men and women in a field
Ari Aster’s Midsommar not only estranged many viewers due to its unsettling tone and uncomfortable and disconcerting content and themes, but it also provided a wide-open blank canvas for different potential interpretations. As a movie, it has a mishmash of various elements and possible influences ranging from the exploitative horror flick and subsequent franchise Hostel to the classic The Wicker Man (including its awful 2006 remake in which - if memory serves me right - a disoriented and utterly confused Nicholas Cage in a bear costume was being chased by various maidens) to an additional whiff of Shyamalan’s rather unjustly maligned The Village.

And, of course, we cannot talk about Swedish cinema without recurring to and being reminded of Ingmar Bergman, in a similar way, that Fellini has shaped our general concept and conception of Italy. But this post is not so much about filmmaking but rather what on Earth filmmaker Ari Aster is trying to say with his piece (if he indeed has anything to say at all).

Nowadays, since the wound is still afresh and a-beating, we cannot ignore the elephant in the cinematic room, the pandemic, and its psychological, social, and political repercussions. For instance, the depressing downer The Banshees of Inisherin is somewhat justified under the circumstances, that is, if seen under the banner of the collective madness that has held the whole world in its wild grip leading to irrational actions and often shocking unexpected behaviors from our neighbors and fellow beings.

Not to mention many a star has fallen from the domes of the sky and been dropped or pushed from the pedestal due to their (apparently?) inappropriate words or actions. Relationships have broken apart, families have gone astray, and friendships have abruptly ended, sometimes inexplicably and sometimes justifiably so. The pandemic has been a punch to the gut for many on all possible levels and it has managed to expose many failings and weaknesses both on a macroscopic (globally, nationally, socially) as well as microscopic (local, personal, psychological, and individual) level.

Midsommar starts right in the midst of a cracked and cracking romantic relationship and loads it with an extra heaping of angst, dread, and lingering anxiety. Dani, the female protagonist, and future May Queen (though neither she nor we know this yet) is confronted with emotional trauma from her bipolar sister while encountering a general lack of support and understanding from her boyfriend underscored by her own personal demons that she is not able to shake off or get rid of and which end up taking over.

Some have read and interpreted the movie as our need for social support and belonging, which is only increased due to a lack of community. There is also an undercurrent of emotional dependency and neediness on Dani’s part as she relies rather too heavily on others instead of taking a personal stand and facing and confronting her trauma upfront and in a direct manner.

All of this is certainly true but what struck me was how cults tend to thrive under these specific circumstances. It is as if we all had that ceremonial tea that manages to break down our defenses making us vulnerable to harmful and toxic substances and viruses (not only the ones that affect our bodies but also - and perhaps more pronouncedly - the mental, emotional, and spiritual ones). 

Dani is vulnerable, and since she lacks will, independence, and determination, it comes as no surprise that she falls for the cult. But the same can be said about her macho friends who play it tough and claim to be in control of the situation but are also eaten up by unacknowledged anxiety and insecurities. Neither one of them manages to escape, but what’s even worse, no one even tries to stop these atrocities from being committed in front of their eyes, let alone attempt to change sickening and stomach-turning actions undertaken under the name of religion, culture, and tradition – have your pick.

This is where the movie has much to show and teach us as it shoves a mirror right in front of our faces and under our noses. As we speak, we have become a place where we are afraid of speaking up because we are afraid of being seen as “disrespectful” toward other people’s cultures and ethnicities.

Ethnocentrism is held up as the original sin and no matter how depraved other cultures may act, we are currently wary of criticizing them so as not to potentially appear racist. The ancient Nordic tradition presented here is disregarding and disrespectful of basic human rights and decency but at one point the American visitors are brushing off suicide rituals as simply and irrevocably part of ancient idiosyncratic culture and tradition and believe that it is they who must “acclimate” to this. An awkward and unwarranted comparison or “justification” was made to our own brand of ageism in which we merely send off our elders to retirement homes.

In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, they do not want to see or accept that the apparently idyllic world around them is absolutely insane and batshit crazy; in fact, in the eyes of the guests and visitors, it gradually becomes normalized and even accepted! In fear of hurting the feelings of the community while also being dragged and bogged down by their own doubts, insecurities, and lack of confidence – and most likely also for the purposes of self-preservation and protection - they go along and say nothing even when the lines have been crossed, and then some.

In a sense and various ways, it reminded me of the Zimbardo prison experiment, which to my knowledge is the closest we have in terms of studies demonstrating and exposing the underlying psychological dynamics and dimensions of a growing cult. Every participant in the study, including staff and the researcher himself, gradually but quite quickly became so entrenched in a cult-like mentality that if left alone, it could have had even more dire and devastating consequences for everyone involved.

All the supposed prisoners become “acclimated” to the growing abuse perpetrated by the “prison guards” just like the analogy of the frog in boiling water. And yet, this was a supervised experiment that was undertaken not out of malice but out of scientific curiosity. So much worse are the circumstances when people are blindly following a tradition or are willfully misleading and manipulating fragile and vulnerable people as narcissistic leaders are wont to do.

Today, as we tend to view and re-evaluate the many exploits of capitalism while also being at the same time envious of and deaf and blind to its various successes, traditional Western cultures and their worldviews are under constant attack. Not all of it is unjustified of course but, in their eagerness and zealousness, people are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Individualism and property rights, part and parcel of the capitalist outlook, are not necessarily evil, vicious, or harmful, but rather it comes down to how it is used and manifested. Freedom of expression is of course essential, but it has its limits and constraints since individual freedom and social responsibility need to go hand in hand or be the two sides of the same coin to work effectively and for the benefit of all, and not just become an expression and supposed justification and mask of self-indulgence.

Yet the real nightmare is a world that is run by extreme collectivism, which is akin to and a close cousin of fascism. Stalin and Hitler were dictators who had no regard for human life, and yet they stood on polar opposites in terms of their political beliefs and ideologies. When we assign more blame to one or the other side of the political spectrum, we are ignoring the millions of innocent people who have lost their lives because of these two unscrupulous totalitarian beings.

In the imaginary world of Harga, the elders seem to be the ones that are running the show, at least at first glance. But then, we realize that there is an age limit stipulated to their lives and after which they must ceremoniously jump off a cliff and unceremoniously die in front of everyone else, sometimes even with a “little help” from their “friendly” community.

Moreover, they refer to the scriptures passed on from their ancestors, but it is said that these are not complete yet and shall be completed by those with physical and mental challenges, or to use the more commonly accepted and familiar jargon of today, one that is neurodiverse in nature. These individuals - purposely and intentionally brought into the world via inbreeding as a deliberate product and measure - are allegedly untainted, unencumbered, unclouded, and free from “normal cognition”! In other words, they are deemed superior in their thinking and their understanding of the world and of life in general. It is one thing to treat people with specific incapacities and perceived limitations with respect and dignity, it is yet another to see them as role models to follow.

But what is the most frightening thing is the killing off of the individual. In a collectivistic society, the individual not only loses their rights but also their idiosyncratic essence. Everyone is treated the same and is expected to think and act alike and in unison. No dissent or breaking of written and unwritten rules or regulations will be tolerated. If they did so, they would be banned from the commune, today’s equivalent of being dropped from social platforms, losing their jobs, or being shunned by the local and global community. Anything or anyone that does not fit these limited norms is seen as a potential threat and is hence canceled or eliminated. 

Yet in this awful society of Harga, even the most intimate aspects of life are taken away and are engulfed and swallowed whole by the community. There is no privacy to speak of as everything is done in, with, and within the community. The sexual act becomes a showpiece and is ritualistically and vicariously performed in front of the naked community. Even expressions of grief and sorrow, the most personal space within us that we have the option of either holding onto or sharing with others becomes commonplace and a shared commodity and this negates all personal feelings and dimensions. Everyone starts shouting in delight and/or pain, which in turn denigrates the authentic individual feeling and dilutes it with a monstrous, brutal, and sterile takeover of the entire community.

Everything is shared and nothing whatsoever belongs to the individual anymore. In such a world, it takes a community to raise a family, while property (including people, children, and spouses) is shared by each and every one. And such a world is horrendous and atrocious in many aspects. We ought to be aware, mindful, and cautious not to become victims or trapped in such a place, a living hell that squashes human rights, dignity, and individual freedom and liberty in the name of a so-called rural and traditional community or religious doctrines and traditions.