Archive | January, 2014

Poetry Reading: The Song of the Happy Shepherd By Yeats

12 Jan

It’s difficult to talk about Yeats for too long without going into his theories of cyclic history, which is this headache inducing blend of history, horoscopes, mythology, mysticism, and charts that don’t really explain anything.  Personally, though I think many parts of our society are cyclical, Yeats takes it to an extreme usually only used by conspiracy theorists and dungeons and dragons players.   However, The Happy Shepherd comes before Yeats developed these theories, and he’s referencing the classical view on the ages of society.

So according to mythology, there’s five ages:  Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron.   Unlike how we use the term “golden age” now, the golden age of mythology is not associated with power and strength, rather it was an edenic time of peace where there was no central society, and people lived a gentle agrarian life.   It’s a combination of utopia, paradise, with more innocence and freedom involved.   The reason why there was no central society was that it  wasn’t necessary to control the population as they were peaceful on their own.

The reason I’m bringing this up is one of the first places that Yeats brings up in this poem is Arcadia–an area in Greece that is particularly associated with the golden age.  19th century poetry mentions Arcadia a lot–usually involving Shepherds, summertime, eternal youth, and love dalliances.   In the rapidly industrializing world, this idea of a place where one can be gentle and free with no effort seemed very alluring in comparison to the soot filled cities of the Victorian era.

In this poem, the golden age is over, but the shepherd is revisiting it in song.   According to him, the world is filled with many tiresome things, and the only good ones are words and dreams.   Only words can bring back the golden age as it was, dreams are what life is made of.     Deeds and people pass, but words are forever.

Dreaming in particular has a central position in this work–by which Yeats is not referring to wishes or the nighttime sort, but visionary dreams that inform the very way we see the world.  After all, the world is just a construction in our heads, and because of this we must be very careful as to what we call important, because each thing we take in influences our dreams.  All life is merely a vision, and visions are very prone to influence.   He asks us not to listen to the learned men, who view the world with cold detachment–their facts our useless to us, in our self-made worlds.

The shepherd asks us to find answers instead in seashells, where we can whisper our troubles and here them told back to us until they lose meaning.  Our troubles, our concerns are self inflicted miseries, that would simply dissolve if we could only see past them.

In the end, the Shepherd says he’s about to go to Pan’s grave, to sing to him though he is dead.  (Pan was the god of the golden age, which ended at his death.)  The earth too is dead.   Only in us, can we breathe life to this visionary world of peace.

This poem, once you parse out the meaning, is a very seductive invocation to a certain way of thinking–many of the ideas here exist in other forms to this day.  The idea of finding truth in simplicity, of getting back to nature making us more real certainly resonates with the green movement, while the looking back at a certain golden age that we must try to get back to is a message that underlies modern American conservatives.

However both those ideas, as nice as they are, are little more than dreams–idealizations of existences that we never truly knew.  There’s a reason that golden ages are always noted in the past and never in the present.   Looking back at a time that seemed more stable, more peaceful, is a purely imaginary activity–one which often deliberately omits the parts of history that weren’t so wonderful.    The Shepherd here is happy not because he is living in this era, but because he’s recounting it, as passed down through generations.   He wants us to lay aside reason and actions because these two things would easily pop this bubble he has built of the perfect world.

However, the dream is necessary.   Our worlds really are constructed in our heads, and having such a thing gives us passion and direction.   My argument is that we would follow these things with reason and actions, thus bringing our world inches closer to the idealized one, rather than decorating the graves of dead gods.



Movie Review: Spring Breakers

11 Jan



I wasn’t looking forward to this film.  Harmony Korine can be quite unpleasant, and the subject matter made me think this would be a movie about the downfall of awful people.   However, Spring Breakers is quite the opposite, in fact it’s Korine’s most thoughtful film yet.

Yes, it’s about a bunch of college kids on spring break.   Yes they are shallow and juvenile.  Yes the camera comes from a peeping tom viewpoint, ogling the girls and getting in their space.   But there’s so much more to this.

We have four girls going off to Florida for spring break.    Gradually things descend into more and more depravity.   As it gets to be too much, each girl decides to go home when some invisible line has been crossed and they start to get uncomfortable.  Nobody stops them.   The last two girls are the last ones standing, and after a big shootout they leave with Alien’s car also going home.

Korine has picked up a bunch of influences here that I haven’t seen him use before.   We have Thelma and Louise, Faust, Cassavetes, Scarface, beach movies, Screwballs–and that’s just the beginning.   The film is very constructivist, which is quite odd because up until now I would have called Korine a deconstructionist.   The directions are very clear:  we have growing destruction, growing losses, the colors go from bland and grainy to superinfused with color, to dark and shadowy, when each girl leaves the film starts showing them separating from the group.

Spring Breakers is at heart a parable.  We’ve got four girls who go to spring break.  Three steal money from a local diner to be able to afford to go.   They drive off, get a hotel room, and start to party.   They go to a very wild party that gets a little out of control, and get arrested.  The arrest is enough for one girl, so she goes home.  After getting involved with a local gangster (named Alien), one of the girls gets shot, that’s too much for her so she goes home.   The last two get in a huge shoot-out, where Alien gets killed.  They shoot everybody, and then go home.  All four of the girls call home right before they leave saying that they are coming home and they’ll be good from now on.   All four mean it.

What is intimated here is that this experience is a purging of the wild side before these four enter a conservative life where there will be no drugs or partying.   What’s interesting is that the gang members all seem to be people who “went to spring break” and never left.   While the film doesn’t really comment on whether this rite of passage is a good thing, the film does emphasize that these experiences are meant to be temporary, that if you do try to stay there, you’ll eventually become twisted and wrong.

What’s interesting as well is that it’s unclear how much of a gangster Alien really is.  He doesn’t really have much of a posse, and is more living out a fantasy based on Scarface, than living a real life to speak of.   The other gangster does have a posse, but considering that two girls with guns can get through them very easily, one wonders how real that is as well.

Also through this movie, the four girls talking about finding themselves on spring break.   This seems ironic, because through all the debauchery and sexual games, it’s questionable that these girls are learning anything.  However, they change once things go too far, promise to follow the straight and narrow.   Is that reaction really learning?  Is spring break just a way to winnow out all the subversive elements of a population in the safest way possible so that people will happily live out the rest of their lives in dull grayness?

The reaction to this movie has been mixed.   From what I’ve read there’s two groups that don’t like this film.  People who wanted this to be a party film don’t like it because yes there’s a lot of nudity and sex, but none of it is titillating–in fact most of it is disturbing.   This movie is not a party film at all–it’s a meditation on excess.   There’s another group which seems to think that this really is a party film and that Korine just slapped on some artsy elements to hide that.    I wonder if they saw the same movie I did, with the dreamlike imagery, and repeated lines, and symbolism.  So very smart.  I only hope that Korine continues to build on this level of filmmaking in the future.

Best of 2013: The Books

1 Jan



Ok, I know it’s 2014 (and happy New Year!) but I still need to wrap up 2013 before moving on, and the most important part is in books.   Now these are the most significant books I read in the last year, I don’t think any of them were actually published in 2013.  Hell, half the time I’m lucky if I’m reading a book from this decade.   So keeping that in mind, these are the best books I read in the last year.

1.  The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain:  This is a little bit cheating, because I’m not quite done with this book yet, however, I’m pretty close, and I am quite happy to have read it.  I thought it would be basically Mark Twain making fun of travelling, which he does, but really it’s joining one of the best minds on a tour of Europe.   Now, he’s firmly in 18th century politics, so there’s a bunch of stuff (particularly politically) that hasn’t aged the best, but what’s amazing is how little has changed at the same time.  You’ll recognize his fellow passengers, and while there’s many funny parts, he really is trying to have us take a virtual tour with him, so there’s sometimes that he just marvels at the beauty of it all.  Wonderful.

2.  Set This House in Order  By Matt Ruff:  MPD/DID is a very contraversial diagnosis, however, you really need to put this aside to read this book.  Ruff isn’t really writing about that anyway, and the biggest thing I love about this book is that while it has abuse victims as the main characters, he never makes it about that.   A wonderfully human book that is way better than it has any right being.

3.   The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Water Moers:  This german book is a storybook for adults.  Loosely written and wandering, it’s not the sort of thing that people who want a tight story woudl be into.  However, that’s why this is such a charming book, it’s a series of events in an imaginary land that just move from one thing and another.

4.  Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead Sara Gran:  I already reviewed this, but can I just say “breath of fresh air” for mystery?

5.   The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot:  Dark and wonderful.   I already reviewed this one too, but if you’re looking for something that is John Irving-esque with a twist, this is it.

6.  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie:  His whole trilogy is great, but this book is what really sucks you into it.   Dark as pitch humor laced with fantasy, without the silliness that fantasy often has.

7.  Crusoe’s Daughter   by Jane Gardam:  This is the most beautiful book I’ve read all year by a long shot.   Meloncholy, elegaic, going into the nature of story and freedom.   Why isn’t Jane Gardam more famous in the states?

8.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton:  De Botton looks into the meaning of work–he’s got one amazing mind, he’s like a living encyclopedia.   Read this to get smarter.

9.  How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler:  This is one of the few self-help books that lives up to its  name.  Most people don’t read very literately, this book teaches you how.   Anybody could pick this up and learn a thing or two.

10.  Embassytown by China Mieville:  Georgeous slice of sci-fi that is thoughtful and urgent.   If I could only build worlds with half the depth that Mieville does.

11.  The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs:   Never before has queer mental health issues been written down this concisely for gay men.   I don’t agree with everything he says, but I can say that I’ve never met a gay man who hasn’t had to deal with at least some of the issues  presented here.

12.   Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:  I really got into mindfulness this year, and this is the best book I ran into.  Very simple and accessible, never preachy, and doesn’t promise stuff if you do what he says.   This is the best guide for westerners to get into meditation and mindful livng.

What a great year for reading.  I hope that 2014 is even better.