Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Transcendence, the sublime and cinematic divinity

Egalitarianism and direct democracy are nigh impossible to attain. Whatever humanist order of the world we propound, it will end up serving the despots and the oppressors. The only redemption lies in a turn inward (though not fully solipsistic, as corruption and exploitation must be kept at a bare minimum). The only respite we can in this abyss is through transcendence and contemplation.

Questions such as 'Why are we here,' 'Who are we' are integral human questions. They are part of the human prerogative. Humans feel an intimate need to ask them. Lacking concrete explanations, humans mythologise their existence and offer imaginative interpretations of what it means to be human.

Though now we live in an era of easy answers and lazy logic. People like Richard Dawkins say that 'Asking what the meaning of the universe is is silly question.' (Isn't he thereby discrediting most philosophy? Incidentally, not only is Dawkins a rubbish philosopher, he is a rubbish scientist. As a scientist, you are never meant to assert 'truth' or complete evidence as such. You posit your findings as hypotheses.)

The universe is a large, cold, mechanical place. To assign some sort of meaning to it might seem futile. The human body is mechanical. Yet inside the human body lies a teeming imagination - therein lie dreams! We have the gift of the imagination, something other animals do not really have. We can conceive the universe whatever way we like.

In this post I will consider ways in which humans have tried to explicate nebulous feelings. 'Transcendence,' being taken to a higher spiritual state, has been a major human preoccupation.  (Though, for better or worse, 'God is dead' now and it has lost its zeal.) The term is used a lot to describe a process wherein you feel larger than your finite surroundings. In this sense, the term should not be confined strictly to a spiritual sense. I'll also look at 'The sublime,' a termed coined by The Romantic movement about feeling awe at the vastness of nature. Finally, I will consider a kind of divine force present in two films I love (though these 'forces' are not religious, nor are they necessarily 'God').


Although many people see the Italian Renaissance as a secular movement, one has to bear in mind that the Enlightenment movements elsewhere in Europe were deeply religious and in some cases were bound up to the Church. Regardless, the art that resulted from the Italian Renaissance eulogised divine providence. In most of the rich paintings that resulted from this period, the need to spiritually 'connect' with a higher power was a recurring preoccupation. Needless to say, there are plenty of Biblical passages represented in these works.

There are plenty of paintings from this period which depict an apocalypse (many credulous believers perhaps sensed it to be imminent.) Such as the painting below:

The Resurrection by Matthias Grunewald

I especially love paintings which depict a confrontation between Heaven and Hell. Do the painters secretly relish the temptation of Lucifer? John Milton certainly did in Paradise Lost. What's interesting in these kind of paintings is that they amalgamate two diametrical opposites. There is a sense of catharsis and drama, too. Whenever I run into this kind of painting in a gallery I certainly feel very excited. It seems to evoke passion, temptation and carnal desires overcoming piety.

Stories of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli

Here's a painting you most certainly are already familiar with:

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

This signifies a major preoccupation of the times: the loss of virginity. Venus is soon to get married, thus bringing her pristine innocence to an end. She is soon to pass onto a stage of life where procreation and reproduction are crucial. There is, of course, plenty of Biblical symbolism in the painting. Additionally, there are touches of sexual innuendo. The red cloth on the right is folded in such a way so as to come to represent a woman's sex. Venus resembles the Virgin Mary in such a way that it suggest that the loss of innocence is is like a passage into another stage of life.

Right, that's painting. Let me get into territory which is very, very dear to me. Music. The most spiritual of all music has to be from the Baroque period. The supreme master of that period is the inimitable Johann Sebastian Bach.

His St. Matthew's Passion sounds like he has transposed music from the Heavens into musical notation. I found it quite jolting to see a video performance of it. Those sounds cannot emanate from humans!

One of the most splendid things about Bach is that he is a craftsman who writes the most complex, contrapuntal music yet it is suffused with emotion and warmth. You certainly get that with most of his organ music. At a more advanced level, you could write a PHD thesis on one of his fugues. On another level, you can listen to it and be transported to a heavenly realm. When I hear many of his organ pieces, it is so mysterious that I almost feel compelled to reach out and grab a hold of something. And I don't know what it is exactly. Music is the form that elicits those kind of mysterious feelings. You could not possibly give a logical explanation as to what it is about it that gives you so much joy (it is after all a subjective judgement). Yet, it is still very mathematical and technical!

Here is one of his organ pieces, Toccatta, Adagio and Fugue. The Adagio movement is a special favourite of mine! It is especially demonstrative of what I was blathering on about above:

Whenever I get drunk, I listen to Bach. I prefer getting drunk on my own. I feel too oppressed and flustered when I'm drunk with others. I can drink a whole bottle of red wine, listen to Bach ad nauseum and I feel as though the whole world around me has being banished.

My favourite wine is Carmenere. It is a grape which is now mainly grown in Chile. With minimal rainfall in growth seasons, it was able to be preserved there. 

Alcohol diffuses my consciousness. Add Bach's music and I feel strangely transcended.

The ultimate sense of connection, of being made to feel 'larger,' comes from visiting a cathedral. The enormity, the stained-glass windows, the numerous embellishments! As a non-believer, to visit such a place, one can feel a kind of elevation. It is not necessarily spiritual (I, for one, do not believe in spirits!). You certainly feel humble, finite, impotent in the face of a much greater presence. It is down to ingenious architecture, sure! But it totally works!

Canterbury cathedral


Nature. To many, a corn field, a spot of woodland, a pond, a meadow are decidedly ordinary. Wouldn't you rather see tantalising skyscrapers, uber modern buildings and grand high-ways? Or if you do want some nature, isn't Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyons preferable?

I may be foolish, but I feel far greater satisfaction in an ordinary meadow than I do in the Grand Canyon. What I love about the woods is that it is pure substance. It is devoid of human inventions. That's why I feel far greater serenity there than I do from a bustling city centre.

The Romantics certainly shared this sensibility. The apotheosis of such a sentiment is expressed in my favourite painting of all time:

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Everything that means to be human is contained here! The sublimity of nature, the innerness, feeling supreme!

What I like about the Romantics is that they looked away from realism. Literary romanticism also shares the love of nature described above, epitomised in the poems of Wordsworth. They drew from Hindu mysticism and oriental religions. Most of their poems, stories and novels were set in strange, ominous lands. They are populated by seers who voyage into foreign, dream-like territories. You certainly get this with Coleridge and his poems Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Blake is especially exciting. He is definitely a seer! He is a crazed prophet, reporting from oneiric landscapes. In the real world, he is an acute observer of hues, trees, bird life and all the wonders of nature.

Morning by William Blake

To find the western path
Right thro the gates of Wrath
I urge my way
Sweet mercy leads me on
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day

The war of swords & spears 
Melted by dewy tears
Exhales on high
The sun is freed from fears
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky


I will write concisely about two films which have a kind of ambiguously 'divine' presence: 2001, a Space Odyssey and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

In the former film, alien life is the source of 'divine connection.' The astronaut goes into 'the unknown' by plunging into Jupiter and merging with this celestial body.

To begin with, humans have scant resources and limited intelligence. They are not the dominant species, either. With no tools, they are unable to hunt and assert their dominance. Alien life gradually assists them (via a 'monolith'). With the guiding light of this alien life, primates learn to develop weapons, learn to hunt and steadily come to establish their own civilisation.

This alien life is the inscrutable divinity which humans vie for. The presence of a monolith in the moon give them a glimpse of a higher power. The presence of alien life perturbs the computer on the ship (HAL) and corrupts it. Eventually, the astronaut enters the monolith and is born anew. This alien species is the genesis and origin of human existence. 

2001, a Space Odyssey dir. Stanley Kubrick

Watching this film is indeed a transcendental experience. It is a science fiction film and the divinity which one is 'enlarged' by is alien life, not some kind of spiritual body.

In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a group of conquistadors head into the amazon forest to capture 'El Dorado,' an invention deployed by the Incans to derail the Spaniards.

The film is certainly about obsession and the darker impulses of the human psyche. Initially the leader, after encountering difficulties, decides to pull back. Aguirre, though, mounts a coup and insists on continuing with the expedition. 

The jerky camera frames, the abiding shots of the sluicing currents and the ominous synthetic Popol Vuh sountrack all have a divine quality to them. Yet it is the promise of riches and success that convinces Aguirre to prevail. The possibility that his obsessions will be wrought to realisation is what convinces Aguirre to stoically continue throughout this onerous journey. In the end, his entire crew has been disposed of by Indians and Aguirre is left alone in the raft. He continues to believe in the realisation of his dream. 'Who else is with me?' is his final averment.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God dir. Werner Herzog

Thursday, 20 June 2013


In Jorge Luis Borges' story 'Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,' an imaginary writer has copied out the entirety of Don Quixote, word by word. Borges, in his typical playful manner, ascertains that 'The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say; but ambiguity is richness.)'  Pierre Menard's version of Quixote surpasses Cervantes', Borges says, because the passing of time has improved it and the work has acquired more meaning. In this post I will consider what makes ambiguity so rich and so special.

Ambiguity can pertain to many things. In the public domain, eloquence and clarity are, for many, optimal. (One of the reasons why no-one really pays attention to the current Labour party, who are leading the polls pretty much by default, is that they are overly theoretical and their speeches are densely layered with information.) Yet, in any public discourse, ambiguity is also richness. The monothematic (possibly a neologism of mine) and the monosemantic (possibly another one) preoccupy themselves with one idea to the detriment of others. These simple ideas generally make a greater impact on the cultural consciousness. They are reducible to the 140 character count on Twitter. Plato's conception of the afterlife, for example, was too complex to make a public impact. Christianity, with its rhetoric of salvation, was far easier to grasp and therefore far easier to indoctrinate. Similarly, today's politicians generally do not win seats in parliament because their policies are correct. They generally win seats by employing the correct rhetoric (which is short on ambiguity). The New Atheism movement has made an inexorable impact on the public consciousness. Yet they peddle burning simplicities, which hardly touch on multiple issues and meanings. Although ambiguity makes public discourse richer, it is hardly able to have a broader impact, because people want easy arguments which are reducible to slogans.

When it comes to linguistic ambiguity, this tends to make literature richer. Spareness and simplicity work very well when they are stylised; otherwise, it is too one-dimensional. When you string together two words which negate and contradict each other, this takes your mind to different directions. It makes you reflect. The signifiers which cause the words (i.e. the actual objects the words symbolise - a tree, a stone, a car, etc.) gain an extra dimension. The world, likewise, becomes richer and more three-dimensional. A multiplicity of meanings ultimately leads the reader to a transcendent sphere. The juxtaposition of words and ideas which are not combinatorial results in a concept which is not realistically feasible and is quite unpalatable. Its unreality is almost divine. The use of language in a lovely poem or a paragraph from a novel ultimately create new hybrids. They transcend the hum-drum reality of material objects because they make you think of them in a new way.

When a book has been completed, can one claim to understand it wholly? Does it have one overriding meaning and message? Of course not. It would be dreadfully boring if it did. The queasiness one feels upon completing a novel comes after having absorbed such a range of ideas, emotions, messages, phrases, etc. You could not possibly say that even allegories like 1984 and Lord of the Flies deal with one single subject. A literary work is the accumulation of several different subjects. It is ambiguous and is, therefore, richer.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Modernist literature and enjoyment

Modernism. Just put that word into a search engine and you are likely to be awash with a plethora of academic journals and essays. If you were to enroll in a literature course, it would be very strange indeed if you did not encounter a reading list bereft of The Waste Land, Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.

Amble into your local book retailer and, sure, you will certainly find those titles! But they aren't likely to be in display. Stacks of Dan Brown's Inferno will be neatly allotted next to the tills to entice you. A few paces ahead, those mighty tomes, with impressive spines, boasting to be a Centenary Edition will be organised under Classics or Modern Classics. If you are not a Lit undergrad, you are not likely to buy them. If you do, it is merely to display at home, ostentatiously laying bare your intellectualism! The tomes are likely to gather dust. The pages will soon become yellow. Once you die, they are likely to be shifted over to the local charity shop. Another person will buy it with the same motives and the whole process will recommence.

Modernism does not seem to be synonymous with enjoyment. It is more synonymous with analysis and studiousness. Many people seem to think that that is its sole function. Most people who do dig their teeth into it for other reasons are snobs or pretentious charlatans. Indeed, you are someone who scoffs at others who read for 'enjoyment.' When you read modernist lit, you do not do it for enjoyment...

Seriously, this attitude is most discouraging. Personally, modernism is the literary form that does the most for me. I'm even beginning to tire of post-modernism now. (Self-referentiality and self-conscious cleverness wears a little thin after a while.) Why do I like it? The dense prose lifts me to a transcendent sphere. The ambiguity makes me tingly. The psychological richness of the characterisation makes you empathise with these unusual people. The stream of consciousness is highly compatible with my own thought processes. Not much happens? I do not need yarns all the bloody time for christ sake! I can tolerate books where nothing much happens!

In many periods in my life, I have passed inordinate portions of my time reading these kinds of books. No, I did not talk to girls. And no, contrary to what you may think, I never played video games. I did not watch Star Trek, either... This kind of stuff heightened my consciousness. It also made me want to write! As Stephen Dedalus said in Portrait of the Artist: 'Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.'  Yes! This was in me, too! Contrary to what you may think, and contary to what all those academic journals suggest, many people read these tomes for enjoyment!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why modern classical music is important

Why is it that many people will consider attending a Michael Haneke film, voyage through the Tate Modern and read an experimental novel, but the prospect of the sonic equivalent, namely modern classical music, is not considered?

In fact, it is surprising how few people know such a genre (and it is a pretty sprawling genre) exists. Many might be surprised that composers still exist and - yes! - compose. Classical composition is as quaint as quill pens or bowler hats.

Still, a classical composition is the richest and most advanced form of musical you can come by. It has harmonic density, rhythmic versatility (especially the modern stuff) and rich tone colours.

Bela Bartok

If classical music is an anachronistic form, a counterfeit coinage, why would one ignore a form which with this 'density', 'richness' etc. Indeed, many sophisticates think that modern classical music is a anachronistic 1950s fad which has no relevance to the hustle-and-bustle post-modern times we currently live in. Classical music as a whole is perceived to be a repertoire which has come to an end. (In fact, the standard musical programme covers a very narrow period of time. Very little before the Seventeenth century and very little after the 1950s is performed.)

As in any endeavour, new advancements should be propounded and accepted. The tragic thing with classical music is that few such advancements after the Second World War have been accepted. Pre-1945, Schoenberg and the Viennesse school had many faithful followers and their work was quite prestigious. Following the Second World War, the advancements made by people like Messiaen, Stockhausen and Boulez have hardly been welcomed either by a general audience or the concert hall. Its value is confined exclusively to the domain of music analysts and elites (or, as in my case, curious music lovers).

The way music is digested is curious, anyway. This has a major impact. With an abstract painting, you can make a willed effort to recognise shapes. The same is true for literature and film. You can a read a line over six or seven times. Film, being a visual form, does not require great levels of mental application. Modern music is quite assaultive. A first listen of a modern piece will yield little results. That's why people do not want to pursue it further.

Gyorgy Ligeti

Human cognition in many ways is geared to process tonality. With atonal music, you have to somehow reconstitute your mental processes. (In fact, rhythmically virile and tonally ambiguous music is especially exciting to my mind and ears!) This has led some neuroscientists to argue that the brain is engenieered to process tonal music and that anyone who claims to like atonal music just wants to be part of a clique. (Steven Pinker made quite a spurious experiment where he played tonal music and then atonal music to babies. The babies smiled when hearing the former, cried when they heard the latter. This led him to that conclusion!)

The advancements made by modernist classical music, the foundations of which were left by Wagner and Mahler, parallel those made by physics. To the laymen, the theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton are far easier to decipher than those made by Einstein and quantum mechanics. Likewise, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and easier on the ear than Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. A quantum leap was made in music, yet it went so far that its instant access and appeal was lost.

I remember playing a Steve Reich piece(whose music is rather mellifluous and easy to grasp!)  to someone This was a musically literate person and he could not grasp why this guy would write counterpoint. He couldn't quite fathom why you would write two separate lines of music for different instruments. Many have preconceived notions about music. It must be very uniform in its design, adhere to a strict set of rules and have a steady beat. The sole pursuit of sound making (found in composers like Varese and Ligeti) is not considered worthy. The notation of poly-metric and poly-tonal music writing (found in composers like Elliott Carter and Charles Ives) is considered to be a violation of core tenets (why would you want to have a lot going on at once!).

Edgard Varese

Steadily, one sees more mention of such music in the media. Alex Ross' fine book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century has rekindled interest in modern classical music. Let's hope that living composers get due recognition for their efforts!