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Origins of the Theatre of the Absurd

February 3, 2012

After Beckett, it was Ionesco who had the greatest impact on the Theatre of the Absurd. But Ionesco is different from Beckett. Unlike Beckett, who tutored himself into the phenomenon of the absurd under Joyce’s influence, Ionesco was jolted into it by a sudden mystical experience.

One day as he was taking a stroll, he claimed that he had an experience in which his notions of time and space broke down. This experience taught him the inherent absurdity of the world, time and space. After it, his art also grew on these lines. He developed drama in which time, space, logic and language had no meaning. He taught it by mutually contradictory statements, self-contradictory statements and absurd and fantastic situations.

In Rhinoceros, there is logician whose logic is absurd.

Old Gentleman: So then, logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

Logician: Logically speaking, yes,but the contrary is also true.

Berenger: Solitude seems to oppress me, and so does company of other people.

Daisy: You were both wrong.

Old Gentleman: Even so, you were right.

The absurdity of life is expressed in these lines.

Life is an absurd business. P 19

In the continuation of Brecht’s effort to break the fourth wall, Ionesco uses self-reference in Rhinoceros. P.23

He breaks the conception of normal and abnormal in Rhinoceros.

“Dudard: You seem very sure of yourself. Who can say where the normal stops and the abnormal begins? Can you personally define these conceptions of normality and abnormality? Nobody has solved this problem yet, either medically or philosophically. You ought to know that.”

The beastly instincts of humanity are taking over and everyone is turning into a rhinoceros, a wild creature who has no semblance with the cultured individual which we are fond to think of. The Absurdists employed their techniques not only on the subject matter and content, but to their craft too. Not only dialogues between the characters are ambiguous and absurd, but even the stage instructions are contradictory.

A similar small play is Future Is In the Eggs. A trap-door may or may not open; or perhaps the stage may or may not slowly collapse, and the characters – all unwittingly – gently sink and disappear without interrupting their actions – or jut quite simply carry on, according to the technical facilities available. P. 141.

Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution – A Fine Collection of Art by the Old Bolsheviks

February 2, 2012

Like other Annals of Communism books, Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution is for the serious students of the history of Russian communism. It shows us the lighter side of the ‘comrades’; the kind of jests they used to play on each other, particularly in making caricatures. This book is a collection of these caricatures and portraits. It mostly describes the period before the Great Terror, before the iron regime of Stalin stifled all intellectual imagination. Most prominently it features the wit and art of Bukharin, the man who, according to Solzhenitsyn, was capable of stemming the bloody run of the Communists in Russia.

As a student of Stalinist history, it came to me as a surprise that humor was still possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This book shows that even under extreme duress, human creativity breaks out in the most unexpected of places. While describing the underlying brutality of the Communist regime, these caricatures prove the basic premise of Communism wrong: it shows that social engineering is impossible; man can never be bound into ideologies.

The introduction by Simon Sebag Montefiore is very interesting and necessary for going through the portraits and caricatures.

This is not a book to be read in both literal and symbolic sense. The portraits cannot be leafed through at one go. One has to absorb the history underlying these portraits over a period of time, while studying other historical works and contemplating over the life of Communist Russia. Not a volume to be studied in isolation but very useful for those who are deep in the history of Russian communism.

White Collar – An Intellectual Series… finally!

February 1, 2012

Am finally watching a TV Series again… White Collar. Its of an entirely different genre. It is called a dramady – a mixture of comedy and drama. The Western tradition divides drama in comedy and tragedy and to me the division has always seemed wrong and insufficient. Comedy is light, vulgar and non-serious, while tragedy is… well… tragic.  I have always felt that there should be another category; that life can not fit in just these two categories. They had the category of tragi-comedy but it was disappointingly nostalgic of the two categories.

Good thing, in television and cinema they don’t bother about these distinctions anymore. White Collar is a comedy, a drama and a thriller. While the focus is on white collar art crime, the way the characters carry themselves is comic. Anyone who has watched Prison Break is more likely to be disappointed in other crime dramas. White Collar is not on the line of Prison Break, but it does involve con men and break outs. Every episode takes on a different story, just like The X-Files. Neal Caffrey, played by Matt Bomer, is a felon, who is working for the FBI, thanks to his excellent brains and his insider knowledge of the criminal world. Agent Burke is the one who is running Caffrey.

The main characters of Neal Caffrey and Burke are excellent. The chemistry between characters is good enough. Side-characters are also very interesting. Mozzie looks genuinely like a computer geek, who loves his  geeky freedom of a room filled with silicon chips. Burke’s wife looks sexy and smart in the right proportions. The most important thing is the smart and witty dialogue with a smacking of literature. They actually quote from Kafka! Imagine that!

There are side stories going on… Burke is supposed to be a born and bred FBI agent, who is not in his mettle when it comes to romance, but he actually looks more lost while playing an FBI agent. Caffrey has a runaway girlfriend whom he is trying to track and who has left him clues. The clues dawn on Caffrey one at a time, at the end of every episode.

White Collar is a soft crime drama, one in which the audience is fully confident that nothing really bad will happen. It is watched more for its designer wear, beautiful interiors and stunning sceneries. Lighting and colors are exquisite and every frame is carefully thought out, calculated for an optimum visual effect on the audience. White Collar is thought out as a series of mesmerizing photo-shoots with a lot of effort put into making it look visually captivating. 

And it is not dirty. In this age of television series where even male frontal nudity is not a taboo, it is nice to see a series which can be watched by even kids. There is no nudity at all and even the kisses are hard to come by. And of course, no rough language, no four letter word. White Collar is truly a series for the intellect and for the sophisticated elite minds. Hope it continues!

The Sound of the Mountain – Most un-Japanese of Kawabatas

January 31, 2012

The Sound of the Mountain is the most western of all the works of Kawabata. It lacks the haiku-like feeling which Snow Country and Thousand Cranes give. It is the story of a post-war Japanese family undergoing modernization. The story is told from the point of view of a sixty-year old writer who is the head of the family. He has a daughter, Fusako, who has a disastrous marriage and has come back to live with him and a son who has a beautiful wife, for whom Shingo has feelings himself. His son Shuichi is also having an extra-marital affair.

The novel centers on the internal struggle of Shingo regarding his feelings for his daughter-in-law. The sound of the mountain is heard only twice during the novel. It is considered as an evil omen in Japan. Shingo takes it as an omen for the breakup of his overtly calm family, which has otherwise tumultuous inner life. He is struggling against his feelings for his daughter-in-law, while his son is having an affair despite having a beautiful wife at home. His daughter-in-law aborts her baby as a vengeance against her husband. Shingo’s daughter is also a mess and a nuisance for the family.

The Sound of the Mountain is a story of the gradual breaking-up of traditional social order in Japan. In the background there is dismay and the dejection of the defeat in the Second World War. It is a story about a society which is Japanese in externals but is slowly modernizing and westernizing, and with it comes the mental tumult.

It is also a story about the internal struggles of an aged writer who has no spiritual background and who has half spurned the traditional Japan.

As is usual with Kawabata, the novel is sprinkled with talk about art, western and Japanese. It is not like Snow Country or Thousand Cranes but like any Kawabata reader I loved it. Who cares if it is not truly Japanese? Whatever Japan is left in it is good for a fan. And I obviously am a fan of Kawabata.

The Master of Go – A Very non-traditional Novel

January 31, 2012

The Master of Go is not a novel in the traditional western sense. It is a piece of reporting of the game of Go, a game like chess, but infinitely more complex.

The game is between an aged master and a newbie. The whole novel traces the developments of the game which goes on for days and at last the newbie defeats the master quite unexpectedly.

Behind the lines depicting the real game of Go, it is the story of the decay of traditional Japan and its defeat at the hands of the modern western thought systems. The master represents the traditional Japan, and his defeat symbolizes the end of that Japan.

“The Master seemed like a relic left behind by Meiji.”

The disciple who is more rational in his thoughts represents the modern West and its excessive stress on rational and logical faculties of man.

“Otake’s manner, as he repeatedly threatened to forfeit the match, carried suggestions of an inability to understand the courtesies due to an elder, a want of sympathy for a sickman, and a rationalism that somehow missed the point.” P. 55

For Japan, the game of Go is not just a game, but an exercise of their whole civilization, a miniature dynamic model of Japan, but for the disciple and the West, Go is just a game.

“The Oriental game has gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art. It has about it a certain Oriental mystery and nobility.” P. 117.

Though the master is defeated, but the disciple is not give credit for his game which is not quite Japanese in flavor.

“One could see in the divergence a spiritual incompatibility, and perhaps something physiological as well. The Master too was known as a careful, deliberate player.” P. 156.

The Master of Go is too technical for most of the reader who are not familiar with the game of Go, but the background undertones makes it worth reading for anyone.

Thousand Cranes – My favorite Kawabata

January 31, 2012

Thousand Cranes is perhaps the best work of Kawabata; as good as Snow Country. It is written in prose but has the touch of poetry. The haiku like quality of Kawabata’s prose is made even more beautiful by the tea ceremony descriptions. Deeply Japanese in form, it makes a very strange read for the non-Japanese reader. But Kawabata renders the strangeness beautiful somehow and the post-war turmoil of the modern Japan gives it a common ground with the modern West. The elaborateness of the tea ritual can astonish a western reader in which the cups in which the tea is taken are very important. There are sister-brother, man-wife cups and so on…

The photographic images given by Kawabata are etched into memory. They are unforgettable.

The story is of the son of a wealthy merchant. The novel begins with the tea ceremony in which Kikuji is invited by a mistress of his dead father. There he is involved into an affair with a rival of Chikako, Mrs. Ota. He meets a beautiful girl with a kimono of cranes. The image is deeply etched in Kikuji’s and readers memory. The novel is a series of tea ceremonies and Kikuji’s relations with and feelings for three women.

Japanese art, modern and traditional resurface all over the novel, at meaningful places. For a reader unfamiliar to the Japanese history, it’s hard to make connections, but otherwise these connections are important.

Japan was untouched by post-modernism before the war, but post-war writers like Kawabata were influenced by it and in Thousand Cranes we see some ugly images described in detail, which would be very unorthodox for a traditional Japanese writer.

Thousand Cranes is one of the representative works of Kawabata and the post-war Japanese writing, with post-modernism, Japan balanced in proper manner.

Snow Country – The Best of Yasunari Kawabata

January 31, 2012

Snow Country is the most representative of Kawabata’s work, with its haiku like structure. Snow Country is a story of a Japanese writer and a geisha. But anyone trying to find a traditional story of a man having an affair with a geisha will be disappointed. The setting is completely different; very Japanese. He visits his geisha in a mountain spa, hidden deep under the western mountain range of Honshu.

Snow Country is not just to be read. It is to be felt. It is to be felt in the train journeys of the hero to the spas. It is to be felt in the walks taken near the spa. It is to be felt in the fleeting images which flash throughout the novel, images which are juxtaposed with actual situations.

Snow Country is contemplation over beauty and its impact on the observing individuals. It is sad, but in a different way. It is a deep and intense observation of beauty, yet this beauty does not bring happiness. The overwhelming beauty ultimately turns into sadness.

 It is not indicated by Kawabata, but the way beauty turns into sadness in his novels in general and in Snow Country in particular, it tell us of a society in which individuals can no longer bank on their spiritual heritage. That heritage seems to be receding into a past, a past which is yearned for, but can no longer be brought back. Snow Country is an elegy of wasted beauty, of beauty spoiled by its own excessiveness.