The Giver

The Giver [1993] is a Newbery Medal winning novel by Lois Lowry set in a utopian society in which all pain and uncertainty have been removed. The novel follows a boy named Jonas from the age of 11 to 12, the year of his coming of age.

In Jonas’ world, society has eliminated pain and strife by removing personal choice and unpredictability. The Community is structured around routines; work detail and family units are delegated rather than chosen. Normal human desires and impulses are repressed to maintain social harmony. Children are conceived artificially and given to family units in an ordered manner. Firm rules of etiquette control daily life.

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As the story progresses , the society is revealed to be far less ideal than first implied. Jonas’ world lacks any color, the people have no memory or history, they experience a controlled climate and known nothing beyond the limits of their own community with its ordered terrain. While the community has created structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality, in the process, they also have eradicated all emotional depth from their lives.

The year all the children are given their work delegation,  Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the Community history. He is the one the Community must draw upon to access the wisdom of history to aid the Community’s decision making.

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Jonas struggles with all the new memories and emotions introduced to him, from snowflakes to sunsets, to war, suffering and pain. For the first time he is exposed to questions of good, evil, in-between, and whether it is even possible to have one without the other.

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Like other great utopian/ dystopian novels such as 1984 and Hunger Games, The Giver explores the boundaries of human freedom, the necessity of pain and emotion to the human experience and the insidious claims of government which would claim to be acting in the best interest of the people while limiting their freedoms.

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Many of the things we wished we didn’t have to deal with in fact define and refine our lives. Maybe a utopia without chaos or pain is not what we want or need.

Unpredictability, our passions, our memories. They all give us the greatest of pains and the greatest of joys but they also bestow us with the wisdom and memories, to truly live.

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Summer Storms 

She stands in the evening air as winds pick up. They whip away the warmth and stagnance of day. The sky crackles darkly, it jabs with light and grumbles with thunder.

The crickets schreee. Fat palms and ferns  begin to whip about. There is a smell of ants and frangipani and wet soil.

Soon the night air fills with the rumble of rain, large pellets hitting leaf and ground. It drowns the chorus of crickets and drums the roof and window panes.

In an instant,  the night lights up like day – the verandah, the trees, the driveway – all alight as though by a giant flash bulb.

Then thunder tears apart the air, a whip crack overhead so loud the building shakes. She jumps.

The children shriek but not with fear. They strip off and run in the rain. More lightning, more thunder.

The adults gather on the verandah to watch as – pick! pock! – ice balls begin to fall.

She pulls a cardigan around her. The children gather in and they all watch the lawn turn white.

Recapitulation, narrative and memory

April 25th for us antipodeans is a sacred day.

This year marks the 100th year memorial of the doomed,  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) storming of the Gallipoli peninsula, a rocky stretch of Turkish beach and cliffs during World War I.

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The bloodshed on those battlefields, was greatly increased by mistakes and ineptitude a by British commanders far away. Young Australians served for freedom of King and country however the war forever changed the national identity. It’s the time when the British colonial outpost of Australia, grew up and became a nation in its own right, despite Federation 14 years earlier.

Every year on April 25th, at memorials around the country and at parades through city streets, the battles are remembered. Diggers, or more accurately, their descendants honour the fallen; servicemen and women pay their respects to those who sacrificed their lives in the war.

These small ceremonies are repeated year after year with the same catch-cry,

“Lest we forget.”

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This is what memorials are, the enactment of a story, the recapitulation of a narrative reminder of what was and what should never be again. War memorials are not enough to stop us ever going to war again, but they serve as a solemn reminder of the truth,

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana [1905].

Ceremonies are a kind of sacrament, an embodiment of a kernel of truth. They point the participant back to a truth while pointing them forward to live life with the knowledge of this truth.

Sacred stories have always been important to communities; they shape a people conscious of the past and capable of facing the future.

“Empire of the Sun” a reflection on Memory and Story

J G Ballard’s 1984 novel Empire of the Sun was made into a Hollywood film in 1987. In his article, published in The Guardian he reflects on 40 years of memories and how story re-wrote them.

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Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed. Hauling them into the daylight can be risky. Within a few hours, a precious trophy of childhood or a first romance can crumble into rust.

I knew that something similar might happen when I began to write Empire of the Sun, a novel about my life as a boy in Shanghai during the second world war, and in the civilian camp at Lunghua, where I was interned with my parents.

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Coming to England after the war, and trying to cope with its grey, unhappy people, I hoarded my memories of Shanghai, a city that soon seemed as remote and glamorous as ancient Rome. Its magic never faded, whereas I forgot Cambridge within five minutes of leaving that academic theme park, and never wanted to go back. The only people I remembered were the dissecting room cadavers.

During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence. But how could I raise this Titanic of memories? Brought up from the sea bed, the golden memory hoard could turn out to be dross. Besides, there are things that the novel can’t easily handle. I could manage my changing relations with my parents, my 13-year-old’s infatuation with the war, and the sudden irruption into our lives of American air power. But how do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?

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I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

In fact, I found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story. We had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating our boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for me after the formality of our prewar home, where my parents were busy with their expat social life and I was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at me and never spoke to me.

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But I needed to move my parents out of the story, just as they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room. They had no control over their teenage son, were unable to feed or clothe him or pull those little levers of promise and affection with which parents negotiate domestic life with their children. My real existence took place in the camp, wheedling dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Reader’s Digest from the American merchant seamen in the men’s dormitory, hunting down every rumour in the air, waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid. My mind was expanding to fill the possibilities of the war, something I needed to do on my own. Once I separated Jim from his parents the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet.

Even then, I had to leave out many things that belong in a memoir rather than a novel. Lunghua camp, with its 2,000 internees, was a grimy bidonville, a slum township where, as in all slums, the teenage boys ran wild. There were unwatched screwdrivers or penknives to be snaffled, heroic arguments with a bored clergyman about the existence of God, buckets of night soil to be hoisted from the G-block septic tank and poured into the tomato and cucumber beds that were supposed to keep us alive when the Japanese could no longer feed us. In a bombed-out building I found a broken Chinese bayonet, sharpened the stump of blade and used it to prise away the bricks of the kitchen coal store, filling a sack with precious coke that would briefly break the chill of our unheated concrete building. My father said nothing, feeding the coke into a miniature brazier as he rehearsed his lecture on science and the idea of God. I ran off, and nagged the off-duty Japanese guards in their bungalows until they let me wear their kendo armour, laughing as they thumped me around the head with their wooden swords.

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In 1984 the novel was published, a caravel of memories raised from the deep. Enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth. Curiously, my original memories of Shanghai still seemed intact, and even survived a return trip to Shanghai, where I found our house in Amherst Avenue and our room in Lunghua camp – now a boarding school – virtually unchanged.

Then, in 1987, like a jumbo jet crash-landing in a suburban park, a Hollywood film company came down from the sky. It disgorged an army of actors, makeup artists, set designers, costume specialists, cinematographers and a director, Steven Spielberg, all of whom had strong ideas of their own about wartime Shanghai. After 40 years my memories had shaped themselves into a novel, but only three years later they were mutating again.

Hazy figures now had names and personalities, smiles and glances that I had seen in a dozen other films: John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson. With them was a brilliant child actor, Christian Bale, who uncannily resembled my younger self. He came up to me on the set and said: “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” He was followed by an attractive young couple, Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer, who added: “And we’re your mum and dad.”

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Coincidences were building strange bridges. Thanks to the film studios in Shepperton, many of my neighbours worked as extras, and now called out: “Mr Ballard, we’re going to Lunghua together.” Had some deep-cover assignment led me to Shepperton in 1960, knowing that one day I would write a novel about Shanghai, and that part of it would be filmed in Shepperton?

Spielberg, an intelligent and thoughtful man, generously gave me a small role as a guest at the opening fancy-dress party. Warners had rented three houses in Sunningdale to stand in for our Shanghai home. When I arrived at the location I found an armada of buses, vans and coaches that filled entire fields and resembled the evacuation of London. Bizarrely, it also reminded me of the day we were bussed into Lunghua from our assembly point at the American club near the Great Western Road. I can still see the huge crowd of Brits, many of the women in fur coats, sitting with their suitcases around the swimming pool, as if waiting for the water to part and lead them to safety.

The Sunningdale house where the fancy-dress party was filmed closely resembled our Amherst Avenue home, but this at least was no coincidence. The expat British architects in the 1930s who specialised in stockbroker’s Tudor took the Surrey golf course mansions as their model. Past and present were coming full circle. The Warners props department filled the house with period fittings – deco screens and lamps, copies of Time and Life, white telephones and radios the size of sideboards. In the drive outside the front door, uniformed Chinese chauffeurs stood beside authentic Buicks and Packards. A 12-year-old boy ran through the costumed guests, a model aircraft in one hand, racing across the lawn into a dream.

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Surprisingly, it was the film premiere in Hollywood, the fount of most of our planet’s fantasies, that brought everything down to earth. A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word. Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg’s film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter. But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: “Oh, oh . . . !” and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defence of young Bale.

I was deeply moved by the film but, like every novelist, couldn’t help feeling that my memories had been hijacked by someone else’s. As the battle of Britain fighter ace Douglas Bader said when introduced to the cast of Reach for the Sky: “But they’re actors.”

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Actors of another kind play out our memories, performing on a stage inside our heads whenever we think of childhood, our first day at school, courtship and marriage. The longer we live – and it’s now 60 years since I reluctantly walked out of Lunghua camp – the more our repertory company emerges from the shadows and moves to the front of the stage. Spielberg’s film seems more truthful as the years pass. Christian Bale and John Malkovich join hands by the footlights with my real parents and my younger self, with the Japanese soldiers and American pilots, as a boy runs forever across a peaceful lawn towards the coming war. But perhaps, in the end, it’s all only a movie.

JG Ballard – The Guardian, 3 Mar 2006.

Ode to Charlie Kaufmann

Every now and then you read/ watch stories that are just so unique, creative, odd and freakishly brilliant that you sit up straight.

This is the case when you watch a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Screenwriter for Being John Malkovich [1999], Adaptation [2002] Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004], and more, his stories explore the surreal, and often absurd inner worlds of artists and loners.

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Being John Malkovich, his first major success, is perhaps also his most bizarre and most genius work. It  features a down on his luck puppeteer, Craig, who discovers a secret portal into John Malkovich’s mind, on the 7 1/2 floor of his workplace. Chaos ensues when he begins to tell others of the portal and begins to sell access to it. Craig, uses the portal to live vicariously the life of a successful artist; however, the discovery that the portal can be used to prolong one’s life signals the beginning of the end for this over-reaching mortal.

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Adaptation tells of Kaufmann’s own experience attempting to write a screenplay of The Orchid Thief. Originally Kaufmann suffered writer’s block on the project, and instead used the experience to later write Adaptation. In the retelling,  Kaufmann added a fictional twin brother Donald, obsessed with screenwriting a block buster screenplay. Charlie, determined to be true to his art-form suffers terrible writer’s block while Donald succeeds in selling a six or seven figure script for a cliched psychological thriller. The film is full of angst and self-examination about art, success and the self loathing and jealousy involved in creating commercial work.

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The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind tells the tale of Joel and Clementine, two strangers who meet on a train and are immediately drawn to one another. Through flashbacks, we learn that the pair are ex-lovers who after a break up, underwent a  procedure to erase their memories. We see Joel even while unconscious, battling against the procedure and attempting to hide memories of Clementine in the recesses of his mind. As each memory is subsequently erased, we learn that the technician delivering the procedure, Patrick, is at that time dating Clementine, and illegally viewing Joel’s memories to gain romantic advantage. Another technician, Mary, finds this out and confronts Patrick concerning her own memory erasure after an affair with her married boss. In protest to Patrick’s breach of confidence, she steal all the company records and mails them out to all customers. Joel and Clementine receive their records soon after meeting on the train and despite being strangers to one another, consider rekindling a relationship together.

Kaufmann bears his heart on screen. He explores all his own insecurities, and like other Jewish writers and comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen, turns it into beautiful art.  Amongst the notes of angst and introspection however,  he adds a magical realism that transports the viewer viscerally through the mind and memory.

 

The Myth of Thamus and Theuth

In the writings of Phaedrus, Socrates tells his disciples this story.

Among the ancient Egyptian gods, there was one called Theuth who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, Theuth visited Thamus, King of Egypt, urging him to disseminate the arts around Egypt. For each art that Theuth presented, Thamus offered his praise and criticism. When it came to writing, Theuth said:

O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. (Phaedrus, 274e)

But Thamus replied that, as the “father of writing,” Theuth’s affection for writing had kept him from acknowledging the truth about writing. In fact, Thamus asserted, writing increases forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and understanding things, students will rely on writing as a potion for reminding. Moreover, students will be exposed to many ideas without properly thinking about them. Thus, they will have an “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

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Socrates used the illustration to point out that writing alone has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). Nor does it discern its audience nor offer self explanation. Socrates instead favoured conversation, “the living, breathing discourse of a man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image” (Phaedrus, 276a). Socrates praised dialectic:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows . . . Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)

As a lover of good writing and an advocate of literacy as key to community development and human emancipation, I find this conversation  interesting for a few reassons.

  1. First, it comes to us via text. We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.
  2. Second, Socrates highlights that “meaning” is the soul of communication, and the rendering of the human heart and mind, its greatest good. The absence of human interaction, leaves a vacuum, giving space for the empty pursuit of knowledge, disconnection of thought from feeling, and the subjectification of meaning altogether.

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Much like contemporary complaints of electronic forms of communication “killing conversation”, we can view first hand an ancient discussion of the same problem. The key it seems, is that humans must talk “to” each other and not “about” each other.  Reading “about love” is not the same as “behaving lovingly”.

Nevertheless, the power of this analogy even today, shows that writing has its place. Phaedrus accused Socrates of inventing the myth to support his point and Socrates did not disagree.  Word pictures, poems and stories particularly have an ability to capture timeless truths, and carry meaning throughout the ages.

A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him
—Dylan Thomas

When all is said and done, nothing beats human relationships, dialogue, discourse, dialectic and discussion. Turn off our e-devices, close the books and have a chat.