A Distillation of Nietzsche

Nietzsche

God Is Dead.

I previously posted on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen because of my Coursera course from Wesleyan University. The next philosopher that the course deals with is Friedrich Nietzsche and the text is his second essay from The Genealogy of Morals with the title Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters. It took a lot of effort for me to get through that text, and so I decided to distill what he says in this blog post, along with my own opinions in parts.

Let me first provide some context about Nietzsche. At the core of Nietzsche’s philosophies is this struggle for intensity to supplant morality because it leads to the decadence of society. Nietzsche’s most famous line: God is Dead. This wasn’t a religious statement in any way, but a critique of the notion of the “ideal”, a philosophical cornerstone purported by Plato that still exists even today. But Nietzsche believed there was no ideal, no standard, no endpoint, no measurement, no criterion against which humanity should be judged. In fact, he encouraged Man to live without a standard to aspire to, a standard that limited his potential and what he could accomplish. Ideals are an excuse to keep one from living and realizing intensity, and that is one of the ideas he brings up in the essay that we’re dealing with here.

So, what is Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters about? Nietzsche is trying to understand where guilt comes from and what this idea of a bad conscience is. He does this by looking at many things, including the origins of conscience, the forced demarcation between good and bad and the influence of society upon individuals. Ultimately Nietzsche criticizes the veil of guilt as an obstacle in the pursuit of intensity and as a way to limit individuals from realizing their true potential.

“To breed an animal that is entitled to make promises—is that not precisely the paradoxical task nature has set itself where human beings are concerned?”

Nietzsche begins by highlighting the ability of humans to make promises into the future as wondrous, even when they have the trait of forgetfulness imprinted within them. With forgetfulness, their consciousness is selectively aware of the important things and does not even notice the bodily functions that it goes through. He alludes to forgetfulness as ‘a porter at the door, so to speak, a custodian of psychic order, quiet, etiquette’ and states that ‘if forgetfulness were not present, there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hoping, no pride, no present.’

The exception to this forgetfulness is the existence of memory, wherein forgetfulness ceases to function in the cases where promises are to be made. He clarifies that memory is not an inability to be rid of an impression once it has been etched into the mind, nor is it a case where the forgetfulness apparatus has been harmed and one obsesses over something constantly. He says: ‘…it’s an active wish not to be free of the matter again…a real memory of one’s will…But how much all that presupposes! In order to organize the future in this manner, human beings must have first learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to set goals and the means to reach them with certainty…’

The only way for man to be able to make promises into the future with other men is to become predictable. When man is predictable, man is trustworthy, says Nietzsche, and so over time man is made predictable by two things: the “morality of custom” and the social straitjacket (two terms that aren’t explained in the text, but that we can effectively understand as the social stigma and the confines of custom as a historical tool to maintain the existing morality within a culture.). The result of being able to make promises is the origin of responsibility, when people are responsible for honoring arrangements no matter what misfortunes may befall them in the future. Being seen as a responsible person builds trust, respect and fear and these are things that separate men in terms of the power they wield. The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over oneself and destiny, has become internalized into the deepest parts of him and grown instinctual, has become an instinct, a dominating instinct…The sovereign man calls this instinct his conscience.

But how is conscience created? How do people know when to do something or, more importantly, when not to do something? It’s important to remember that we’re talking about people during the prehistory of man, when people were not civilized and had no notion of what is right and what is wrong the way we see it today.

When the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs, the most terrible sacrifices and pledges, the most repulsive self-mutilations (for example, castration), the cruellest forms of ritual in all the religious cults (and all religions are in their deepest foundations systems of cruelty)—all that originates in that instinct which discovered in pain the most powerful means of helping to develop the memory. 

Nietzsche takes the example of what the Germans did to attain mastery over their basic instincts and their crudity:

Stoning

Flaying

Drawn and quartered

So, in his words, that’s how conscience was created. But what about “bad conscience”? As Nietzsche asks this question, he introduces a concept that this essay quotes often: the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor. This introduction is done in a very circuitous way through the development of the idea of punishment. Punishment carries with it negative connotations about crime and sentences and prison and humiliation for us today, but punishment originated as repayment for the inconvenience faced by the victim.

For the most extensive period of human history, punishment was certainly not meted out because people held the instigator of evil responsible for his actions, and thus it was not assumed that only the guilty party should be punished:—it was much more as it still is now when parents punish their children out of anger over some harm they have suffered, anger vented on the perpetrator—but anger restrained and modified through the idea that every injury has some equivalent and that compensation for it could, in fact, be paid out, even if that is through the pain of the perpetrator.

When punishment is seen as a transaction between two parties, it serves to explain that back in the day debtors who were serious about upholding their promises would offer themselves as collateral in the event of defaults while the creditor would see this as an opportunity to better his social standing and to derive pleasure from inflicting harm upon another human being (the explanation behind this creditor with serial killer tendencies is that all human beings have a primal desire to express cruelty because of our disinterested malice. Celebrations in the medieval age were not seen without their fair share of animal torture and casual murder. I found this concept hard to understand, but then pop culture provides us with wonderful references with Calvin Candie from Django Unchained and the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. These are characters that express no remorse for their inhuman actions whatsoever and in fact derive pleasure from it. But what about less extreme examples? I for one derive pleasure when I get more marks in a test than my friend Aditya. I love to rub it in and make him feel bad, knowing he would do the same for me. Isn’t that deriving pleasure from the suffering of someone else?)

Calvin Candie

“I live for this shit…”

And then, sadly, Nietzsche enters the Blabberzone, where you don’t really understand what the hell he’s trying to say, but you think that it’s got to mean something profound and provocative and generally along the lines of what he’s been saying so far. But you read it again, and again, and again, and nothing changes. You scratch your head, sleep on it, but nope, Nietzsche’s nonsense is here to stay. What I’m talking about is the seventh paragraph of the text, which I think is vaguely about the interpretation of suffering over time and the ideas of free will vs. a deterministic universe, but I gave up on it after many tries.

Luckily he gets back to making sense in the next paragraph. If punishment originates as repayment by a debtor for not going through with a transaction, what then is justice?

Justice at this first stage is good will among those approximately equal in power to come to terms with each other, to “come to an agreement” again with each other by compensation—and in relation to those less powerful, to compel them to arrive at some settlement among themselves.—

Nietzsche then segues into the interaction between the community and the individual. Individuals in societies enjoy certain privileges that they would not have gotten were they living outside the community. A community and a society is built on trust between individuals, so when a person commits a crime against a community, he effectively violates the trust of the community. Nietzsche believes that at this point in history, society still doesn’t recognize the crime itself as being inherently bad, but that by breaking their trust and violating his promise to the community, the criminal had lost the privilege to remain in the community. His punishment results in being outlawed from the community, and a degradation of his social standing.

But after cycles of this behavior, when society grows in power, what happens then? In the words of Nietzsche:

As it acquires more power, a community no longer considers the crimes of the single individual so serious, because it no longer is entitled to consider him as dangerous and unsettling for the existence of the totality as much as it did before. The wrongdoer is no longer “outlawed” and thrown out, and the common anger is no longer permitted to vent itself on him without restraint to the same extent as earlier— instead the wrongdoer from now on is carefully protected by the community against this anger, especially from that of the immediately injured person, and is taken into protective custody.

It is here that the community separates the criminal and the crime in an effort to compromise the desires of the victim and general unrest and attempt to find equivalent punishment according to the severity of the crime. But then Nietzsche becomes idealistic and states that the stronger a society becomes, it would let its criminals go without punishment because it is strong enough to sustain itself from crimes. This magnanimous utopian gesture is mercy.

One of Nietzsche’s complaints with the way we understand the world is why revenge is correlated with justice – does the suffering of another person satisfy us to provide “justice”? In fact, he postulates, revenge is a reactive emotion to any situation, an emotional outburst that drives reason, fairness and rationality away from the mind, akin to how a bull flares up when it sees a matador fluttering a red sheet in the stadium. Justice, however, seeks to drive away these reactive emotions impartially, and does this “partly by dragging the object of ressentiment (party in danger) out of the hands of revenge, partly by setting in the place of revenge a battle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by coming up with compensation, partly by establishing certain equivalents for injuries…” But the most important thing that the Man who upholds justice does is that he establishes law – a higher power with the ability to demarcate what is illegal and what is illegal – and this elevates the authorities that govern the people to a higher state where attacks against it are treated as attacks against the law and it essentially reverses the effect of revenge, which is to consider the crime only from the viewpoint of the injured party.

After yet another philosophical digression (which doesn’t need any elaboration because it doesn’t really add anything to the overall arc of the essay), Nietzsche draws attention to the need for clarifying the purpose of punishment and its “meaning”. Punishment is something that is hard to define because it carries a variety of meanings along with it. Earlier it was easier to untangle these meanings, but the best definition for something is when it has no history of being defined. The danger of highlighting any one meaning for punishment is that it pushes the other meanings to the background. He provides various examples of this: punishment as a way of rendering someone harmless, as a prevention from further harm; punishment as compensation for the damage to the person injured, in some form or other; punishment as isolation of some upset to an even balance in order to avert a wider outbreak of the disturbance; punishment as way of inspiring fear of those who determine and carry out punishment. 

“This’ll show you to ask me about the meaning of why I was hitting you before!”

But the most essential purpose of punishment that even we in the 21st Century utilize to justify institutions like prisons and rehabilitation centers is the power of punishment to awaken guilt within criminals. Nietzsche opposes this idea in two ways. Firstly, he believes that emotionally, criminals shut themselves down in prisons and penitentiaries, choosing to descend into an existence defined by gloomy seriousness and self-abasement in the extreme cases. Secondly, the judicial system alienates criminals from guilt because in their minds they feel as if they have done no wrong because the crimes of which they have been convicted are committed all around them by the police and the prosecution in their own ways and yet they are lauded for it. This is where the idea of what is just and unjust comes into play – the crimes in themselves are not crimes. If everyone around us robbed supermarkets and faced no consequence, it would just be a way of life. Crimes are defined by how society and the authorities look at them. Look at marijuana, why is the consumption of it illegal? Just because the government says so. The only guilt that criminals feel upon being punished is the regret that they were caught and that something went wrong with their plan. The effect of their punishment is that they become more careful not to repeat their mistakes next time.

After all this exposition, Nietzsche turns to what his hypothesis as to the origin of “bad conscience” is. It started with the creation of society where a bunch of primitive men and women decided to live together. Here, ground rules were made amongst them, and if violated, the guilty party would be punished. Man could not listen to his oldest guide, instinct anymore, for when instinct told him to mate with another man’s wife, his rational mind, his conscience, told himself that that would result in punishment. And so man was at conflict with himself and this led to the internalization of man.

In performing the simplest things they felt ungainly. In dealing with this new unknown world, they no longer had their old leaders, the ruling unconscious drives which guided them safely—these unfortunate creatures were reduced to thinking, inferring, calculating, bringing together cause and effect, reduced to their “consciousness,” their most impoverished and error-prone organ! I believe that never on earth has there been such a feeling of misery, such a leaden discomfort—while at the same time those old instincts had not all of a sudden stopped imposing their demands! Only it was difficult and seldom possible to do their bidding.

(The best example of this struggle.)

Since societies led to the invention of “bad conscience”, what led to the creation of societies? Nietzsche attributes this creation to a pack of blond predatory animals, a race of conquerors and masters, which, organized for war and with the power to organize. This pack creates structures around other individuals and hammers out the freedom from them and designs a framework for the society. These higher individuals are not the reason for bad conscience, but without them bad conscience would not have been created. This powerful instinct for freedom,  driven back, repressed, imprisoned inside, and finally still able to discharge and direct itself only against itself—that and that alone is what bad conscience is in its beginning.

Nietzsche then brings a new perspective on the contractual relationship we saw before when it comes to tribes and their ancestors:

In primeval times, the living generation always acknowledged a legal obligation to the previous generations, and especially to the earliest one which had founded the tribe (and this was in no way merely a sentimental obligation: the latter is something we could even reasonably claim was, in general, absent for the longest period of the human race). Here the reigning conviction is that the tribe exists at all only because of the sacrifices and achievements of its ancestors—and that people have to pay them back with sacrifices and achievements.  In this people recognize a debt which keeps steadily growing because these ancestors in their continuing existence as powerful spirits do not stop giving the tribe new advantages and lending them their power.

The tribe would try to pay back its debt with sacrifices and ceremonies and festivals, but most of all with obedience towards following customs and traditions.

“A couple of oranges would’ve been fine, I just got the munchies.”

And so as the tribe grew in power, so did the tribe’s feeling of gratitude and debt towards their ancestors for giving them the strength to continue this far. Nietzsche then says:

If we think this crude form of logic through to its conclusion, then the ancestors of the most powerful tribes must, because of the fantasy of increasing fear, finally have grown into something immense and have been pushed back into the darkness of a divine mystery, something beyond the powers of imagination, so that finally the ancestor is necessarily transfigured into a god. Here perhaps lies even the origin of the gods, thus an origin out of fear!

For me this is the most important part of the essay because it introduces the religious aspect to the question of guilt. God fearing individuals are people who feel guilty when they violate the values that have been put forth by their religion and so live their lives constantly obeying those precepts. This theory is highly possible and logical because it is easy to elevate the status of one’s ancestors to the point where they become mythic simply because latter generations pass on stories that transform them into legends as reverence builds for these past heroes. I’m also considering becoming an atheist because of this. It seems so cowardly to fear something which doesn’t exist and which prevents me from being the best version of me, chained by fear and doubt and dependence on the will of God to give me the things I want. Religion is also an ideology that has brought the most conflict in our world, where whole communities have been wiped out because one group of men wish to bind another group of men under the tribe which they have mythicized. Dictatorships are a version of monotheism, where a despotic dictator like Kim Jong-Il wanted his citizens to believe that he was a God. So religion itself is symbolic of the will to power that Nietzsche talks about, it’s a tool that politicians use to get votes, it’s a tool for prejudice to disseminate amongst congregations on topics like homosexuality and it ultimately amounts to nothing.

Religion is also fuel for the bad conscience and guilt that Man feels now that there are societies around him. Guilt towards God: this idea becomes his instrument of torture. He interprets his animal instincts and innermost thoughts of cruelty and vulgarity as crimes against God and berates himself for this and it is the most extreme form of self-torture. In this spiritual cruelty there is a kind of insanity of the will which simply has no equal. Nietzsche contrasts the Christian God, the God that tortures people, to the Greek Gods, who are manifested as the different aspects of the Old Man, the Man of Instinct and people have long ago forgotten this idea that they are guilty to their gods. This guilt is essentially an excuse for violence, animal torture and sacrifices and a whole lot of practices that would have otherwise not existed.

That’s basically where Nietzsche finishes. He’s more of a diagnostic philosopher rather than someone with a cure, as the professor in my Coursera course says. But all of the above are interesting ideas to ponder about and they offer some great food for thought.

Note: The quotes from Nietzsche in this text have been edited into a more concise and user friendly fashion. They are not exact quotes from the Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters text. 

Attributes: 

  1. Nietzsche. by ~radicalpanda at deviantART, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0
  2. Django-Unchained-Leonardo-DiCaprio by PhysicalFlaws at flickr, CC-BY-SA-2.0.
    The rest are public domain pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

Wordplay

When people ask me what I want to do for a living, I have always told them that I want to be a filmmaker. While this is true, it is merely a subset of what I wish to achieve, and that is to create stories. People create stories in different ways through different mediums, and what’s common amongst all these mediums – books, movies, short stories, plays, radio shows – is writing. Which is why I want to be a writer. And then a filmmaker. 

I’ve only recently been toying around with the idea that writing could be my fulltime job. Previously it was only an affectation, a hobby, something to dabble in. But now it feels more concrete and definite and within my reach. I’m lucky to have been surrounded by the English language in the form of my grandfather and my father as sources of motivation to decipher this world with words, but I haven’t really taken advantage of the resources that allow for the learning and implementation of the plethora of words that lies beyond colloquialisms and amateur writing. So what I’ve been trying to do is learn more words and catalog them, along with their definitions and an example sentence. 

Is that enough? I don’t think so. Writers don’t keep a log of the words they encounter while they write. They use the words that come into their head at that very moment and then play around with them by substituting different words that achieve the same purpose and convey the same meaning. Therefore, the larger a writer’s word pool is, the finer and more perspicuous his writing becomes (I love those words perspicuity and perspicacity. A few days after I learnt those words, they popped up in Cloud Atlas and I felt I was the only one in the theatre who understood what it really meant.). I want to try something out on this blog where I employ the ten words I learn and weave a story around them so that they become etched in my mind and serve to teach you something new. Let’s get started. 

The cenobite wordlessly looked past the police officer screaming in his face. The room was filled with stress and tension fueled by the officer, but the monk’s face was placid, reticent and calm, calm, calm. This silent treatment infuriated the officer even more, but none of the words that were aimed as bullets at the monk were even recognized. It was like shouting at a wall, only a wall that did not seem to show the signs of the officer’s anger. This cenobite was highly regarded by his peers in the monastery fifteen kilometres from this police station, now cordoned off as a crime scene, much to the chagrin of the hagiarchy. The monk was no detective, nor was he interested in finding out what had happened to the girl whose mouth now lolled in a metal container in the basement of the station. His only concern for the time being was the reopening of the monastery, and it was this concern that he directed towards the officer.

“When will the monastery be free from your custody?”

This question caught the officer off guard as he was busy spewing through a rant laced with the choicest of threats and sharpest of expletives, specially accumulated over the years from the various lowlifes and criminals that he had encountered as a patrol officer when he had started out on the force. He stopped to catch his breath, wiped his brow with his handkerchief and bore his eyes upon the disinterested monk.

“When we get to the bottom of what happened there!”

“And when will that be, Officer?”

“You mocking me, old coot?”

“Cut the cockamamie, Officer. We both know that I am absolved of any suspicion with regards to what took place last night at the monastery.”

“What’s a cock and baby?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Did you just tell me to cut a cock and baby? You’re on the edge of my temper, you filipendulous old man.”

The mondegreen had confused the officer even more. The monk lamented over the state of the force in his head, a state of corruption and bemusement all the way down.

“Look sir, I have no proclivity to be a thorn in your side. On the contrary, I wish to get this investigation over with as soon as possible in order to proceed with the celebration of Siddhartha’s birth anniversary that is scheduled for overmorrow.”

The officer half sat on the table, his left leg swinging off the side, eyeing the monk to see if it was an earnest request. Satisfied, he got up again.

“You know for an isolated geriatric monk such as yourself, you have quite the silky smooth tongue.”

“So the ladies tell me, Officer.”

The officer seems to grimace at the monk. And then he laughs raucously.

“And a sense of humor too!”

And then the officer walked out of the interrogation room. This conversation was over for now.

The source of the officer’s uncontrolled rage at the monk was fueled by his urgent need to get out of the station and head to the hospital. His wife had rushed into labor a few hours ago and he was unable to be by her side. What infuriated the officer even more was that he and his wife had failed to settle on a name for their firstborn. They fancied themselves as onomastics enthusiasts, but they were unable to agree on a unique name for their son. They went to the Greeks and Romans, famous leaders and philosophers, philanthropists and scientists, even athletes. They had come close several times, especially with Orson and Joaquin, but then they hadn’t made the final decision. His wife pulled out of the process, it stressed her so. She eventually morphed into a Xanthippe, constantly berating him for being unable to decide what to call their baby boy, and he was kicking her stomach in protest at being nameless. The officer had more overtime shifts the final month than any other policeman in the state. But the extra money didn’t erase the harridan that his wife had become. He hoped that today would be the day that the harridan died and that his wife would come back from her brief exile from his life.

The officer stormed into the Inspector’s office, ready to launch a barrage of sentimental excuses to leave the office. The assiduous Inspector held up his hand before he could finish.

“Dalai, I know why you’re here. Your wife is in the hospital and your child seems to have been born. Get back to work.”

“What?!”

“Oh, congratulations Dalai, it seems to be a boy. They had to check twice to see whether it was a penis or a small hole. Get back to work.”

“But sir…”

“I thought you loved overtime no matter what. We’re understaffed today and we’ve got fifteen cases on the backlog. I don’t want the top brass to accuse me of favoritism if I dismiss you, so let’s arrive at a compromise. You get the testimony from that old curmudgeon in the Interrogation Room, and you can go.”

“Sir, I already did. He had nothing to do with it.”

“But he’s in charge of the monastery! Did you…did you even beat his face up?”
“No sir.”
“Cut a finger?”
“No sir.”
“Hold him hanging over the terrace?”
“No sir!”
“And you claim to have gotten his testimony. You indolent fool, juice him up with sodium pentothal and get the truth, will you? Why do you think our country condones human rights? To get shit done!”
Assiduous was the Inspector’s middle name, down to getting the right testimony.

The monk felt the paresthesia as the needle made its way to his vein and injected the truth serum into his system. His body went lymphatic at first, which upset the officer, who subsequently took out his disappointment on the nurse, who subsequently put him in his place when the monk came to almost immediately. His limpid eyes were rolling like roulette balls that wouldn’t stop spinning. His head hung loose, like one of those bobblehead toys the officer had passed by in the kiddy stores, searching for teddy bears to take with him to the hospital, two months before the delivery. His body had the vigor of a dead old lady, and embodied the amorphous nature of synthetic liquids. Dactylographic methods could not identify who this man was, and so the officer took the opportunity to find out.

“What is your name?”
“Edgar Allan Poe.”

The officer turned to the nurse, who shrugged. She was as confused as he was.

“What is your real name?”
“Edgalpoe, EA Poe, Poe Nalla Radge!”
“What were you doing last night?”
“Sleeping with your mother!”

The officer threw a punch to the monk’s face and the monk’s head spun sharply with this contact and rolled back to its original place like a punching bag. The officer looked at his watch and saw that the day was almost at its end and he couldn’t stay any longer in this special kind of Hell. He stormed out, and the nurse went back to watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. The monk lay in his seat waiting for some more questions so that he could tell his version of the truth. The next morning the monk would realize that he had abased himself and would punish himself by doing extra Vedantic meditation while being submerged in the ice cold river at the foot of the monastery.

The officer’s wife lay staring at the hospital ceiling above her. The ceiling itself wasn’t remarkable. It was a structure of rhombuses dotted with multicolored dots and divided by the white fluorescent lights that made her eyes burn if she looked into them for too long. Her body was finally resting after the strain of producing new life into the Universe. She was cursing the officer in her head, that scoundrel who didn’t have the fortitude to decide upon a masculine name for his son. Names like Josiah and Armenio had found their way into their name lexicon and the officer had expressed eager interest for them. Personally, the wife would have called her son Jack, but the officer wanted everyone to know how learned he was through what he called his son. Someone should have named the officer Pompous Ass, but they hadn’t. And suddenly the officer burst into the room, his eyes searching for his baby boy. She smiled out of relief, tears coming to her eyes that their boy was finally here. The officer cradled his wife’s head in his arms, whispering apologies for his late arrival, whispering assurances that life would now be brighter and that they were responsible for someone other than themselves now. Promises were made that would broken in a few months, but the moment retained its purity in their hearts for eternity, but they would never be able to focus on this memory until their deathbeds.

And then the officer whispered something into his wife’s ear.
“I have a name for our son.”
“What?”
“Edgar.”

She slapped his face. The Xanthippe seemed like she was here to stay.

The twelve words I learnt:

  1. dactylography
  2. hagiarchy
  3. mondegreen
  4. onomastics
  5. lymphatic
  6. xanthippe
  7. filipendulous
  8. paresthesia
  9. overmorrow
  10. cenobite
  11. assiduous
  12. proclivity

If you don’t know what they mean, check them out, note them down, write a sentence or two, and use the story to remember the context in which it was used. I hope this was helpful. 

Excerpts from ‘Paris Spleen’

Charles Baudelaire

Thanks to my Coursera (I should really write about that site) course The Modern and the Postmodern from Wesleyan University, I’ve had the good fortune of reading some fantastic texts from Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin, Charles Baudelaire and right now Friedrich Nietzsche (I’ll be posting on his work soon). Yesterday I read the amazing Paris Spleen from Charles Baudelaire, a collection of prose poetry, short anecdotes, and bursts of phantasmagoric imagery. Here’s the preface to put the context for the reader:

For Arsène Houssaye

My dear friend, I am sending you a small work that cannot, without injustice, be said to have neither head nor tail, for all in it is, on the contrary, at one and the same time head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. Consider, I beg of you, what admirable conveniences this combination offers to all of us — to you, to me, and to the reader. We can cut things off wherever we wish: myself, my revery; you, the manuscript; the reader, his reading, for I do not suspend his stubborn will upon the interminable thread of a superfluous intrigue. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this twisted fantasia will rejoin themselves without any trouble. Chop it up into many fragments, and you will see that each one can exist in isolation. In the hope that a few of the pieces will be lively enough to please and amuse you, I dare to dedicate the entire serpent to you.

I have a little confession to make to you. It was as I was thumbing through, for at least the twentieth time, Aloysius Bertrand’s famous Gaspard de la Nuit (doesn’t a book that is known to you, me, and some of our friends have the right to be called “famous”?) that I was struck by the idea of trying something analogous, and of applying to the description of modern life, or rather of a modern and more abstract life, the approach he applied to the painting of life in the past, so strangely picturesque.

Who among us has not, in his more ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic and musical prose, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and abrupt enough to adapt itself to lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to sudden leaps of conscience?

This obsessive idea owes its birth above all else to the frequenting of enormous cities, to the criss-crossing of their innumerable relations. Did you yourself, my dear friend, not attempt to translate into song the strident patter of the street-seller of glass, and to express in a lyrical prose all of the distressing suggestions that his cry sends up through the street’s highest fogs, to the very garrets?

But, to tell the truth, I am afraid that my envious desire has not brought me good fortune. As soon as I began this work, I realized that not only had I remained very distant from my mysterious and brilliant model, but also that I was doing something (if it can be called “something”) singularly different, an accident that might make anyone else but me proud, undoubtedly, but that can only profoundly humiliate a mind that considers it the greatest honor of the poet to accomplish exactly what he set out to do.

Your very affectionate,

C. B. 

Since the work in this collection is perfectly suited for the kind of reader that prefers quick bite-sized pieces of art rather than longform writing, here are a couple of excerpts from Paris Spleen:

1. The Stranger

— Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love the best? Your father, or your mother, or your sister, or your brother? — I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

— Your friends?

— You are using a word whose meaning remains unknown to me to this very day.

— Your country?

— I do not know under what latitude it lies.

— Beauty?

— I would love her gladly, goddess and immortal.

— Gold?

— I hate it as much as you hate God.

— Well then! What do you love, extraordinary stranger?

— I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … over there … the marvelous clouds!

33. Get Drunk

You must always be drunk. That is everything: it is the only question. To not feel the horrible burden of Time breaking your shoulders and bowing you towards the earth, you must get drunk without cease. But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you like. But get drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy solitude of your room, you wake up, your drunkenness already diminished or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flees, that moans, that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask what time it is: and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will answer: “It’s time to get drunk! Not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without cease! On wine, on poetry, on virtue, as you like.”

8. The Dog And The Perfume Bottle

“– My beautiful dog, my good dog, my dear little doggie, come over and smell this excellent perfume, purchased from the best perfumer in the city.”

And the dog, wagging his tail, which in these poor beasts, I believe, corresponds to laughter and a smile, approaches and sets his moist nose curiously on the opened perfume bottle; then, fearfully recoiling all of a sudden, he barks at me, in the manner of a reproach.

“– Oh! Miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement, you would have sniffed it with delight and perhaps even devoured it. Thus you, unworthy companion of my sad life, you yourself resemble the public, to which one must never present the delicate perfumes that infuriate it, but rather carefully chosen filth.”

I highly recommend that you read all the other stories because they have the refreshing potency of descriptive writing mixed with the surrealism of a tortured Frenchman. You can find Paris Spleen in its totality here.

Freddie Quell in ‘I’m Still Here’

In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix plays a tortured World War II Navy veteran who adjusts to a normal life, fails at adjusting, and then follows Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, founder of an organization called the Cause. Joaquin’s performance is excellent, and one of the ways he communicates the trauma he’s been through is through his body movements, the most iconic being this pose:

JP in The Master

‘You talkin’ to me?’

Phoenix in The Master

Shit like this gets you an Oscar nomination…

24/7 in character...

24/7 in character…

But before The Master, Joaquin acted in I’m Still Here, a documentary where he plays himself. Looks like he was already practicing Quell’s posture:

Yup, he's still there...

Yup, he’s still there…

Well, practice makes perfect even for the best actors out there…

Reflections on ‘The Master’

Last evening I had the chance to watch one of my favorite films of 2012, The Master, on the big screen, where it will run only for a week because it’s not the kind of movie that the public of Chennai flock to, although it is quite better than any of the movies they have flocked to or will ever flock to. I had been waiting for the opportunity to watch it for a second time so that I could arrive at an opinion about the film, as should any critic worth his salt when it comes to any movie. First reactions do not carry any weight because they are more the body responding to what it has seen rather than the mind categorizing the movie into a person’s perspective. If there be any measurement of how good a movie is, it is whether one is able to watch it a second time to gain a concrete perspective about what one feels about it.

The Indian Censor Board once again has succeeded in alienating its audiences. This Indian rehashing of the movie brings with it blurs in scenes where alcohol is consumed, breasts are shown, and cuts where sex is supposed to happen. I don’t understand the alcohol aspect at all. So now when alcohol is consumed on screen it’s going to have an adverse effect on the public and as the Government it’s our responsibility to remove that negative element from society? It didn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience at all, added to the horrible movie going public that exists here. Several people walked out of the movie before the interval, they clearly didn’t know what they were watching.

The Master brings with it Phoenix Unchained, one of the best performances in the last decade. What’s interesting to me is that Freddie Quell isn’t an antihero even though people have easily categorized him as such. He just isn’t your typical hero, more animal than man, making for volatile situations and spectacular shots. What’s also interesting is the loose structure that PTA weaves around the movie, and this free flowing meandering path is also what’s so nerve wracking about it. The climax of The Master has the narrative impact of a seemingly simple sentence in a Carver short story. And it washes over you and leaves you bemused.

My second viewing of this film reduced my admiration for it for two reasons. The first reason that I attribute to it is my obsession about the film immediately after I saw it. I read up everything I could about the movie and transcribed an hour long interview with PTA for his official fansite, Cigarettes and Red Vines, for which I earned a poster of The Master. I even won a BluRay of The Master after I participated in a Twitter contest conducted by Cigarettes and Red Vines. So you could safely say I was surrounded by The Master for quite a bit before and after I saw the movie for the first time. The downside of this obsession is that I acquired knowledge on the humongous number of deleted scenes that were shot by PTA as well as the various stories around the making of the film. For those of you who aren’t aware, PTA shot several scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, and there are lines that pop up in different scenes. Ultimately The Master for me is more than the film itself and consists of all these things, and it’s come to a point where the film itself seems like kind of a letdown. Maybe it’s because of all that censorship nonsense. I think it’s mostly because of that. Time to watch it a third time then.