A Sunday Evening Thought: Humanity

Apropos of everything or nothing, depending on your inclination.

I admire Olaf Stapledon’s vision of humanity in Last and First Men (1930): relentlessly self-destructive but irrepressibly resilient, brimming with potential but fundamentally and permanently limited. In this vision, humanity maintains a precarious existence and is usually too individualistic and preoccupied to realize just how fragile it is.

He repeats the sentiment more succinctly in the opening chapter of Starmaker (1937):

From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.

Unhelpfully trite though it might be, a particularly notable line about the better angels of our nature comes to mind.

Eleven Thoughts about “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Needing a break and looking to tear myself away from my usual routine, I went to the movies last night and watched the latest installment of the X-Men franchise. It was okay. Here are eleven thoughts I had at or that were stimulated by the film.

  1. I’m not wild about the secret or alternate history genre in movies (more so than books) because it is often done in a ham-handed way by going to the largest or most notable events in the past and attributing them to the central conceit of the story. It might appeal to some people, but I find it simultaneously dull and pandering.
  2. The longer a franchise runs and the more any of the movies nod toward true ensemble casts, the more likely that later installments devolve into a string of cameo appearance.
  3. I really like Peter Dinklage’s voice.
  4. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is a brilliant character, and I like how Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen play him. He is a powerful character, but beyond his manipulation of magnetism, he is a Holocaust survivor with incredible charisma and will power, one who melds both the outcast ideology of Zionism with the Nazi ideology of racial supremacy, a revolutionary and a terrorist, but one with a (e)utopian vision, a man who has a God-complex, but who is also a good friend. These combine to make him really compelling to watch.
  5. One set of cameos was mutants serving in the army in Vietnam. They are about to be taken away experimented on when they are rescued. It was early enough in the film that I assumed that this would be some sort of Chekhov’s Gun. In a way, it was, but the men being rescued only served as bit-pieces for a cheap tug on the heart-strings. Again, a ham-handed effort to show depth to the world of the story, but comes across poorly because clumsy sleight of hand reveals exactly how deep the story is rather than creating the illusion that this is just the beginning.
  6. I cannot think of a dramatic portrayal of Nixon that I have ever found compelling.
  7. There were some pretty special-effects in X-Men and between some good acting, interesting characters, and the effects, there were the makings of a good story. It made sense in the past-present are brought together for the time-travel portion of the plot, but the transitions between the two timelines were often nearly symmetrical, a feature that I found oddly jarring.
  8. The “present” timeline really only served to heighten dramatic tension to the movie, which was a waste, given the actors whose role was to sit around and act concerned…or over-used since its main point was to remind everyone that they were on a deadline that would inevitably expire just as the “past” timeline reached its resolution.
  9. The frequent glossing between “mind,” “brain,” “psychic energy” and the like bothers me. I realize that this is super-hero/comic book neuroscience, but I’m waiting for the Marvel documentary that explains “the science” at work here. In the meantime, this strikes me as a verbal dodge of the sort found in bad science fiction. I can suspend disbelief to a point, but when you start pulling obvious word-game mumbo-jumbo it is a bridge too far.
  10. I am a sap when it comes to the obligatory motivational speech about humanity with the proper musical accompaniment, but while there was the occasional excellent line in this film, the writing was not transcendent or even consistently clever and interesting. Good writing punches up good characters, and it is unfortunate when characters cannot constantly present themselves as interesting/intelligent/charismatic as they are supposed to be because the writing doesn’t allow it. But this may be a topic for consideration on its own.
  11. The central plot of X-Men is that they go back in time to rescue a defense contractor in order to save the future. It is a nice message that you shouldn’t kill people and the contractor doesn’t entirely get away, though only through his own hubris, not his experiments on people or the central project he worked on. But saving the future by saving a large defense contract is a fairly depressing conceit to hang your plot on. At least in the animated series they had to rescue the President.

There are eleven thoughts. The movie, with its 8.4/10 ranking on IMDB was solidly okay 7 or 7.5/10, plus or minus a bit depending on what you care most about in a movie. I had hoped to go somewhere where I could not multitask and didn’t have a dozen other things to do as a means of hopefully recharging my spent fuel cells. Sometimes the movie theater experience can re-focus me. I did not achieve the ideal outcome, but, in X-Men’s defense, it is entirely possible that I was unable to get that immersive experience because I have several dozen other things on my mind.

Questionable humanity: A Review of Attack on Titan Season 1

I having been feeling the need to exercise my thinking muscles lately and just finished watching the anime series “Attack on Titan,” which is an adaptation of a manga series by the same name. I really enjoyed the show, hence, a review.

A century before the story there appeared in the world titans, which are tall (ranging from four to sixty meters) humanoid figures, usually masculine in shape but lacking in genitalia, that are attracted to areas with high population densities, breaking into towns and eating as many humans as they can get their hands on. Thus far, it appears that the titans are instinctive and unthinking, impossible to communicate with and difficult to bring down since the only way to kill them is to cut into a small spot at the base of the titan’s neck. Titans do not need humans as food and nothing is known about their energy sources or how they communication or where they came from. The titans appeared and multiplied, driving the remnants of humanity behind three concentric sets of walls, Maria, Rose, and Sina, which are commonly thought to have been sent by God to protect humanity.

Human society militarized to confront the threat of the Titans and recruits are divided between the Scout Regiment, which operates beyond the walls, the Garrison Regiment, which mans the cannons on the walls, and the Military Police, which is a position of luxury and privilege. The military provides both internal and external security, as well as enforcing the will of the Monarchy that rules over this new kingdom. In addition to rifles and cannon, all soldiers are trained in the use of 3-D Maneuvering devices that use gas-powered launchers to fire pegs attached to wires in every direction, quickly pulling the wielder in its wake. In enclosed spaces, this gives the soldiers an opening to get around behind the titan and strike at its neck. The device give the human soldiers a chance against titans, it does not give them an edge.

The story opens when Eren Yeager’s hometown in the Shiganshina on Wall Maria is attacked in an apocalyptic event when a sixty meter tall titan appears at the wall and breaks it open, allowing a horde of smaller titans in. Almost everyone in the city is slaughtered and the main characters, Eren, Mikasa Ackerman (Eren’s foster sister), and Armin Arlert (his friend), just children, are forced to flee with the survivors behind Wall Rose. The influx of population into the smaller wall circuit causes famine and social unrest, while our protagonists sign up to join the military with the goal of destroying all the titans.

Each character deals with the training and war against the titans in his or her own way. Eren is an implacable enemy, aggressive but lacking in sense. Mikasa is, for reasons learned in the show, completely dedicated to Eren, but is a much better fighter. Armin is a genius, but the weakest of the three. These characters are the fulcrum upon which the story rests, but they are joined by a larger cast of characters from their cadet corps and future comrades-in-arms as elements within the military buck the innate conservatism of the political apparatus in order to try to win the conflict with the titans rather than waiting, huddled within the walls.

Fair warning, the following portion of the review will include spoilers.
Continue reading Questionable humanity: A Review of Attack on Titan Season 1

My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red.

I, Satan. I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience…Of course because I’m the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true.

We don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is precisely what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for hte joy of life.

For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn’t a lie Orhan wouldn’t deign to tell.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Sultan has instructed Enishte Effendi to create a fantastic book that will, in the European perspective style, demonstrate the power of the Ottoman realm. To create this book, the master miniaturists from the imperial workshops have retreated into the privacy of their own homes to work on the individual images, which fuels the rumors that some or all of the illustrations will be an affront to Islam. One of the illustrators working on the manuscript is brutally murdered and dumped into a well at the same time as Black, Enishte’s nephew, returns to Istanbul after an absence of twelve years.

Work continues on the manuscript even as the search for the murderer commences. Black is an outsider to the entire process and has an ulterior motive: to rekindle his childhood romance with Enishte’s daughter, Shekure, a widowed mother of two whose husband has never been confirmed dead, but who has moved back in with her father because her husband’s brother dangerously lusts after her. What ensues is a beguiling tale that explores the nature of art and reality, love, lust, violence and sacrilege and, as with all of Pamuk’s work (at least those books I’ve read) the Turkish anxiety about sitting at a crossroads between East and West. Black pursues Shekure, Shekure demurs out of her own reluctance, fear for her children, and respect for her father who she doesn’t want to leave. Black interviews the other master miniaturists, the murdered (“I Will be Called a Murderer”) hides his identity, and Hasan, the brother-in-law schemes to get Shekure back.

Questions loom large in My Name is Red. Is perspectivist style artwork an affront to Islam? Ought art reflect objects as seen by Allah or as seen by the artist? Is “style” a defect? What determines the greatness of an artist, aesthetic judgement or accumulation of wealth? Can truth, whether or textual, be captured on a page? What is real? And on and on.

The appropriate place to begin this part of the review (one of the fourth opening line) is a discussion of the narrator. Pamuk gives the impression that there is a storyteller who takes on the multitude of viewpoints while telling the story, as in mimicry of a storyteller in a coffee shop. That storyteller is Orhan, blurring the line between Pamuk himself and Shekure’s younger son. In neither case is there a narrative frame for the story. Instead, the book contains just the complete story, whirling from character to character, always in a first-person limited viewpoint and sometimes switching perspective within a single scene. But these viewpoints are not limited to people, as one character has two distinct personae and the story includes narration from a picture of a horse, a corpse, a gold coin, a picture of a tree, and Satan speaking through a picture of Satan.

The end product is a multifaceted tale that forms a uniform whole and a story where each narrator is cast from an unseen storyteller, confident in its own authority, but in such a way that it is clear that the reality humans have access to is subjective based on one’s own perspective, crafted as that is by whim, desire, and opportunity. Truth belongs to Allah; meaning is the essence of truth, but may have little bearing on reality.

I loved My Name is Red, and it is clearly written by the same author as Snow, which I count among my favorite novels, though one of the common complaints of the latter is that it is boring. This book is a bit more lively than Snow and the format of the novel gives the illusion that the story moves along quickly even as Pamuk draws the reader into his web of questions.

Next up is Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, collected essays of a foodie and a writer.

On Baking: I have a bowl

My current apartment has 480 square inches of counter space, twenty four by twenty inches, most of which is covered a utensil basket, drying rack, and coffee grinder. To give a bit of perspective, the sink, including edges, is 552 square inches. This arrangement is problematic for cooking, but even more so for baking, which usually requires prolonged kneading.

I have a bowl. This bowl holds eight or more quarts, though, to be honest, I do not really know how large it is. The exact size isn’t actually important. It is large and fits comfortably in my lap when I sit on the floor. As a result, I have compensated for my lack of counter space with this bowl. Almost everything I make I knead in this bowl, seated on my living room floor with my iPad playing something or another on Netflix; kneading, particularly with limited motion, usually takes about an episode of a half-hour show like “Attack on Titan” or “Parks and Rec” (recent go-tos). From there I sit and I knead. From time to time I add flour from the bag at my side and after a while I cut off a slice to see if it passes the window-pane test by stretching until it forms a complete, translucent membrane. If the dough tears I adjust the water or flour levels and continue kneading.

Netflix works well for kneading because I don’t look at the dough. Almost exclusively, I knead toward a texture and a stickiness until the point of giving the dough the window-pane test. In the meantime, bread dough serves as an oversized stress ball with the promise of something delicious to come.

Another virtue of baking is that it requires patience. Bread is one of those things that cannot be rushed. It is possible to bake the bread before it has fully risen, but that cuts only a little time off the total process. The rest of the time is spent waiting. I’m not a particularly patient person, but the rewards of baking are worthwhile. It is cliche to say that the world moves too quickly and reminders to slow down are necessary parts of life, but it is nonetheless true. Baking plays this role for me and the periods when the dough rises work well for various chores and for reading (though not work), while kneading causes a practically meditative state.

Four things I like about baking, from most to least important:

  1. Eating. Everything I bake I can eat and I do love to eat good bread products, including bagels, pizza, brioche, challah, stuffed crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls (to name a few). Without question, this is the top reason to bake bread.
  2. Sharing. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is to make about twice as much as I am going to eat myself, and then to give the rest away to other people who like to eat.
  3. Making. It is deeply rewarding to make something, from start to finish and get to see the final product.
  4. The whole stress-ball thing. Seriously, it is relaxing to knead dough.

June Reading: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

For a variety of reasons, including co-teaching a Greek History course, working on my dissertation, and watching (too much) Justified I only finished one book this month, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge himself was born in Brussels to Russian parents and moved to Russia to join the Bolshevik revolution. He was expelled from the party in 1928 and arrested multiple times before being allowed to leave Russia in 1936 and lived in multiple foreign countries (always on the run from Soviet agents) before his death in Mexico City in 1947. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was published posthumously.

Comrade Tulayev is a high official in the Soviet government, but on a cold night in Moscow he is shot down in the street. Serge does not hide who committed the murder, which takes place on the page in the very first chapter, but the killer escapes into the night and the hunt begins. The story unfolds in a panoramic look at investigation into the murder, the fundamental mistrust and uncertainty bred in the Stalinist state, and the purges that rippled outward from the case. The murder investigation provides the fulcrum on which the story rests, but Serge delves into the Soviet policies of scarcity, the deception of economic productivity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, accusations and false-confessions, and the tension between the veterans of the revolution–those people who knew Lenin–and the younger generations that aspire to positions of influence.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev was an excellent novel, grimly funny at times, and for all the terror and failures of the Soviet system, Serge displays an unshakeable faith in humanity. To give just one example, Stalin makes several appearances throughout the story and he is neither a heartless monster nor a cuddly caricature. Instead, Joseph Stalin comes across as detached and isolated, subject to the mistrust that filled the atmosphere. It would have been simple for Serge to attribute the mistrust to Stalin’s own personal paranoia, showing it to be something that radiated outward from the dictator and into the subordinates, but he does not. The mistrust is part and parcel of the system and acts upon each individual equally.

I firmly believe that not every book is for everyone and while I like Russian literature, I also sometimes find it difficult to read. To be fair, this is in part an issue of translation because Russian is more difficult to render well into English than many other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and based on the luck I’ve had thus far, Turkish. That said, I recommend that anyone who has read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or Orwell’s 1984 give The Case of Comrade Tulayev a chance for different look at life under the Soviet State.

Currently, I am about 70% of the way through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is an enchanting tale of murder and marriage in 16th century Istanbul that also serves as a meditation on the nature of art, east and west.