Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Voltaire and Mishima

Yukio Mishima, one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, is perhaps unique in that more has been written about the manner of his spectacular death than on his literature.

In 1970, Mishima committed seppuku or hara-kiri, the Japanese tradition of suicide by disemboweling. Over the years, there have been many speculations and theories on why Mishima did what he did; no clear answer emerged. Now Christopher Ross who set out to understand Mishima, his life and experiences, may with Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend have shed light on the author's death. Says Ross,

Nihilism was, for Mishima, both a personal issue, an insight or even simply a nagging doubt that his life had meaning, and a more general concern, a manifestation of yukoku, a state of regret about the decline of spirituality of Japan. In Mishima's view nihilism was the inevitable result of abandoning the Emperor as a divinity, and hence as a centre of ultimate value, a source of immutable otherness: a focus of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world of transitory things. I began to wonder whether by his death Mishima hoped to stimulate a return to the values of a Cultural Emperor.

Ross, a travel writer clearly fascinated and awed by Japanese tradition starts his quest for the metaphysical and spiritual with the material and tangible: Mishima's sword, that which was used by his assistant to decapitate him (in hara-kiri, the man disembowels himself while a follower cuts off the head in a single stroke).

This journey takes him from Buddhist temples and press archives (for news clippings of the suicide) to museums and through history and the legacies of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji emperor, and the fierce Samurai class. Interspersed are stories of Ross' own childhood and his love for Eastern martial arts, as are delvings into Mishima's life, his delicate health in his childhood, his homosexuality and his ultimate decision to end his life.

Ross does not find the sword easily, and when he does it is rusted and somewhat damaged. He is a bit disillusioned until realization dawns:

Mishima's sword, was, I realised, more real to me as an idea., an archetype for some quixotic grasp at a fantasy part, and didn't seem to need to exist as two feet or so of decaying edged steel.

The last thing that Yukio Mishima wrote before leaving his home to commit suicide was a short note : Human life is limited, but I want to live forever. Perhaps in these words more than in the sword lies the answer to the mystery of his death.


Born Francois Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694 in Paris, Voltaire’s extraordinary intelligence, talent, wit and style made him one of Europe’s most famous thinkers. Much has been written about his contribution to the Renaissance in Europe, but there has not until now existed a detailed documentation of his last years. With Voltaire in Exile, Ian Davidson, a former Paris correspondent for the Financial Times, gives us a portrait of Voltaire's final years spent in exile.
These years are particularly significant, as it was during this time that his writings championed the causes of equality, justice and democracy. Voltaire published most of these inflammatory writings anonymously, prompting castigation from many of his critics. But it is easy to see that the harsh punitive measured adoptive by the French monarchy toward dissidents may have been the cause for his silence. What is less known about Voltaire is that he was also a prolific litterateur, but his dramatic works, plays and volumes on history have been overshadowed by his treatises on justice and equality and his passion, later in life, to see justice delivered to ordinary Frenchmen.

Davidson's narrative begins with Voltaire's birth and his ascent to wealth, riches and fame in Parisian society. In 1734, his Lettres Philosophiques caused a furor in Paris as his praise of English tolerance was construed as an attack on French absolutism. Voltaire fled Paris and from thence on would spend his time in Versailles or in eastern France, returning but intermittently to the French capital. In 1754, after several years in Prussia, he left for Geneva. It would be here that he would live out the last twenty-five years of his life.

Davidson’s description of these years is based largely on the enormous correspondence that Voltaire maintained with other famous figures of the time. One of his masterpieces, Candide, written in his Geneva years, reveals his commitment toward justice, his concern for the oppressed, and his fight to reform the penal system. To ordinary Frenchmen, Voltaire’s name became synonymous with the struggle against the absolutism of the French monarchy. Later, revolutionaries saw him as the harbinger of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, the slogan that marked one of the most bloody and tumultuous periods of European history. Through Davidson’s prose, we ultimately see Voltaire not just as a great thinker and intellectual but also as immensely compassionate and practical, one who used his years in exile to launch a vociferous attack on injustice.

It is no coincidence that the French revolution followed his death (in 1778). His principles became the guiding force behind the Revolution and eventually behind the dawn of enlightenment in Europe and the rest of the world.

Originally published at Curled Up With a Good Book (link 1,2)

Monday, April 23, 2007


Post on artsy film to follow soon to compensate for this kowtow to bollywood kitsch :-)))

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Some comments on the Gere-Shetty calisthenics

We’ve always known Shilpa Shetty is a pretty woman, but now we have an official endorsement from a visibly smitten Richard Gere. via rediff

I think they’re jealous. They wish Richard Gere had kissed them instead of Shilpa. via india uncut

What of course is strange is that no one talked about the charity event or poor Sunny Deol who was there to interact with the truckers! link

It's important these organisations (Shilpa Shetty Fan Club and Vande Mataram Sanghursh Samiti) bring forward the fact that kissing on the cheek is totally against Indian culture. Everytime you glance through the Kamasutra it's always complete with outrageous sex in a million funny positions. But never any kissing on cheeks. (posted on the comments section of an internet site)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Philadelphia Film Festival

ON A TIGHTROPE (dir. Petr Lom)

As dawn breaks at the Yengisar State Orphanage in Xinjiang Province of China, we are made to follow a bunch of orphans belonging to the Uighur community, a Muslim ethnic minority group in China. Over the past few decades, the policies of the socialist and anti-religious Chinese state have ensured that the loyalty of the Uighurs lies more toward the communist party and less toward their own ethnic traditions.

One such tradition is tightrope walking, that has existed for hundreds of years amongst the Uighurs. This practice of walking and doing acrobatics on a rope tied between two poles was, we are told, perhaps an import from the Arab world. Brought over by the Mongols to this part of China along with the faith of Islam, both survived several centuries. But in the relentless pursuit toward a model of an uniform nation state, the religious and cultural traditions of the Uighurs are under threat.

In 70+ minutes of this documentary, we see how the old adage "catch 'em young" has been suitably harnessed by the state apparatus. At the orphanage school, the day begins with the endless reciting of oaths by the students stating their allegiance to the nation, the communist party and to science. When this was followed by a classroom scene with a teacher talking about the first law, I naturally assumed that here would be the elementary physics info of the matter can neither be created nor destroyed sort. Big disappointment. For all the rhetoric on science and rational thinking, the first law turned out to be an oath to refrain from religious and other allied activities and show loyalty to the communist state. How all pervasive the state is, is very obvious by the graffiti that reads "the communist party is our mother and father"; this on the walls of the orphanage.

The film follows a set of orphaned kids, the 11 year old Jumakhun, a 14 year old Sargul, a 12 year old Aijamal and the 10 year old Abliz and their efforts to learn tightroping from a local instructor. Some of these kids are more determined than others, some are more physically fit and agile, while others like Abliz though lacking in the fitness department are endowed with immense vocal talent. Of the lot, it os only Jumakhun who eventually makes a career out of tightroping and is, we are told, being trained by a world class tightroper today.

MAINLINE (dir. Mohsen Abdolvahab) screened as part of the Philadelphia Film festival turned out of a honest and sensitive depiction of a family trying to come to terms with the daughter's heroin addiction and her attempts to clean up her act. Set in contemporary Iran, this rare glimpse of urban Iranian life was so refreshing that one was left wondering how such strong story telling and cinematic traditions survive and flourish in a nation that isn't exactly the mecca for openness or progressiveness. Mainline shows an Iran where cocaine and heroin change hands in the flash of an eye at crowded shopping malls while the youngsters are on alert to avoid the police.

At the centre of the story is the young Sara, who tries to free herself of her addiction as her wedding day approaches. In this she has the help and support of her mother who is taking her on a journey to visit a friend who may be of some aid in the de-addiction process. Once on the road, she finds it extremely difficult to keep away from feeling high; both mother and daughter realize how the monsters of her addiction are not so easy to frighten away.

There was nothing contrived about the film; not a scene seemed out of place or irrelevant, not a snatch of dialogue exsited that didn't belong, and no noise or melodrama where the scope didn't exist. In short, a portrayal that is sincere and brutally honest and mature.

For the past three or more decades since the advent of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Khiarostami on the scene, Iranian cinema has faithfully churned out thought provoking and insightful films about its people and problems that plague Iranian society.

And assisted partly by the Philadelphia film festival and partly by the odd video libraries around, one has, over the years, become addicted to films from Iran. An addiction that parallels Sara's own. Well, almost!!!

PS. Iranian cinema: some recommendations
Where is the Friends Home
The Wind will carry us
The cyclist
The Day I became a woman
Marooned in Iraq
Time for Drunken Horses