What is Literature Good For?

This video pretty much captures everything Bear Skin is all about!

Is literature a recreation activity – something to do to pass the time or something for the holidays?

Or is literature more integral to being, to wisdom, to living, to understanding ourselves?

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Dystopia and the Power of Words

As the Hunger Games finale, “Mockingjay” is released to cinemas worldwide, we are reminded of the power of words and of the relationship of words to freedom.

It is President’s Snow’s rhetorical power and control of the media which holds him in place over Panem, and it is Katniss’ power to defy his propaganda and declare the truth that gains her momentum as rebel leader.

mockingjay

Much of the Hunger Games’ world pays homage to George Orwell’s dystopian 1984.

Published soon after World War II, Orwell imagines a future run by a totalitarian state in which independence of thought and individualism were criminialised.

Thought-crime, as it was called,  was punished by the superstate, represented by Big Brother the ever watching eye. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue, responsible for propaganda.

newspeak

The Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. The Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Winston spends much of his daily work eliminating words from the dictionary and altering historical records to fit the needs of the Party.

Newspeak root words serve as both nouns and verbs reducing the total number of words; for example, “think” is both a noun and verb, so the word thought is not required and can be abolished. In addition, words with negative meanings are removed as redundant, so “bad” becomes “ungood”. Words with comparative and superlative meanings are also simplified, so “better” becomes “gooder”, and “best” becomes “goodest”.

 

1984_poster

 

This ambiguity between comparative/superlative forms would, of course, not prevent heretical statements such as “Big Brother is ungood,” but not only would this statement sound absurd to the ears of the loyal masses, it would also be impossible to elaborate on or to specify exactly what the statement meant because all other concepts and words used to argue against Big Brother such as liberty, rights, freedom, etc. would be eradicated from the language.

The statement would thus be meaningless.

The party also intends that Newspeak be spoken in staccato rhythms to make speech more automatic and unconscious and to reduce the likelihood of thought.

1984

As Orwell further states (through the character of Syme, who is discussing his work on the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary),

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they will only exist in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

What 1984  articulates so well [and Hunger Games in a somewhat inferior manner] is to emphasise the power of language, the power of free thought and free feeling and to equate freedom of speech to freedom of body, mind and spirit.

May we ever continue to express in language rich and true.

Why the French Love Comics

Since childhood I have been charmed by French and Japanese animation or anime. TV shows of my childhood included Astro Boy, Voltron, Ulysses 31, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and more. They held a charm that regular US animation lacked!

cities of goldvoltron

 

As a young adult I discovered the works of Tin Tin and Asterix, both French/ Belgian creations. What was curious to me  was that these works were largely directed at an adult, rather than child audience.

Perhaps this fact helped articulate the charm these works held? These artists took their work seriously. It wasn’t just for kids.

tin tin

A bit of research reveals the fact that the French have elevated comic strips or bandes dessinees, to the level of a national art form labelled The Ninth Art. Comic strips for adults thus portray historical and political events and political satire, philosophy and more.

french anime

 

Certain characters such as Asterix and Obelix have become a part of national consciousness, embodying the national spirit. Peter Davy [2011] in his article published in the June edition of France Today writes:

The indomitable little Gaul fighting off invaders quickly resonated with the [1950s]  French public…..

asterix

Even today, the character [Asterix] continues to represent the determinedly independent French spirit. It does illustrate the fact that comic strips, or bandes dessinées, play a real role in what historians term “the construction of Frenchness”. To put it simply, Astérix is part of the French national identity.

He continues:

 The country boasts the largest comic market in the world after the US and Japan, worth almost €330 million in 2009, and it sells some 40 million comic albums a year. The annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême is the biggest in the world, say the organisers; San Diego’s Comic-Con doesn’t count, they argue, because it is an exhibition as opposed to an artistic festival.

animation

The gallery dedicated to French comic strips, La Musee de la Bande Dessinee has been elevated to the category of Museum of France, equating it with the Louvre.  In fact,  the Louvre itself hosted an exhibition of comic strips in 2009.

french art

The secret seems to be to take an artform utterly seriously and allow it capture a national spirit. May there be many more de la bandes dessinees toujour !!

The Crucible

It is fascinating to discover that Arthur Miller’s brilliant 1953 play, “The Crucible” which portrays the 17th century  Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, is in fact an allegory of the political climate of his day.

The play, which recounts the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of various New Englanders on charges of witchcraft, is used by Miller to allude to the blacklisting of many US citizens by the McCarthy administration. In the 1950s the US Government, led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, accused, publicly shamed and even imprisoned many thinkers, political activists, writers, artists, actors and film-directors on charges of communism and homosexuality.

crucible-open-air_1650407c

Labelled the Second Red Scare, or McCarthyism the era epitomised the making of unfair or unjustified allegations and the use of unfair investigation to restrict political dissent.  Heightened by Cold War tensions,  claims that communist spies and Soviet sympathisers had infiltrated the US abounded. It seems McCarthy did not stop a communists, but also targeted and threatened to expose prominent homosexuals and free thinkers in education institution, unions and in Hollywood.

Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives in 1956. Despite this or perhaps due to this, his play became a classic and remains and timeless reminder of the power of propaganda, the destructiveness of fear driven ideals.

witch-trial

“Witch hunting” becomes a powerful metaphor for the desire to prosecute, expose and punish dissenters or those representing the unknown element.

With political tensions heightened in our own “war on terror”, it’s still as relevant as ever to consider deeply who and what we are seeking to expose, prosecute and punish.

Apocalypse Now

In Saigon of course stories of war come to mind.

One thinks of the musical ‘Miss Saigon’ and miserable war biopics such as ‘Good Morning Vietnam’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and the Coppola classic, ‘Apocalypse Now.’

kurts

The city, now Ho Chi Minh, alive with young people, neon lights, night markets, food vendors, taxis and tourists barely hints such a sad history existed, but then  museums and battle field tours remind.

My tour guide fought in the war and took our bus via the obligatory Centre for Victims of War. His presentation of life for Viet Cong surviving in tunnels while U.S. Bombers swept napalm and Agent Orange through fields and jungles, was sobering.

apocalypse

Many soldiers lived 12 years under ground, if not killed blinded by the eternity of hiding. Children of descendants of the war still suffer deformities from chemical weapons.

In Laos, 80 million unexplored munitions still lie live in farmlands -very real risks to villagers and children. A poor country efforts to clear the land is painstaking.

While much propaganda of the time focused on the evils of communism – Coppolas film ‘Apocalypse Now’ is more self exploratory.

kurtz

Using Joseph Conrad’s modernist classic ‘the Heart of Darkness’ as inspiration, Coppola points out the hubris of American imperialist intentions.

 heart of Da

The ‘heart’ of darkness is not the savage land explored by intrepid men, nor the corruption they seek to wipe out,  but in fact the ‘heart of man’ exposed there once up-river as far as can go.

map

There most keenly this madness is epitomised by Kurtz – a soldier, seeking worship from the locals and decorated with the skulls of his conquests.

Instead of bringing ‘justice’ through righteous war as governments would have us believe, the narrative explores the darkness at the seat of the human soul-  a darkness war does not create, but sanctions.

heart of d

Kurtz’s final words before dying articulate the tragedy, “the horror, the horror.”