V. S. Naipaul on Diversion and Inspiration

In “The Author’s Note”, a preface of sorts to The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), V. S. Naipaul writes,

These pieces…were written between 1972 and 1975. They bridged a creative gap: from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973 no novel offered itself to me. That perhaps explains the intensity of some of the pieces and their obsessional nature….I can claim no further unity for the pieces; though it should be said that, out of these journeys and writings, novels did in the end come to me.

This little passage contains, within it, several interesting observations on the writing process.

First, Naipaul notes that for a period of three years no ideas for a novel ‘came’ to him (or if they did, they were not fecund enough to be sustained for too long.) By phrasing his description of this state as one in which “no novel offered itself to me” Naipaul reiterates the quasi-mystical notion of a written work as presenting itself to its writer as an offering, one now to be taken on and brought forth. Here I am; make of me what you will. The writer appears as a conduit for the passage–into the reader’s world–of a written work. Naipaul’s further remarks make clear that while this initial stage of writing might seem otherworldly, what follows is most decidedly grounded in the concrete–in the very substantial acts of writing itself.

Second, even though no idea for a novel-length project came to fruition, the writer still has his writerly energies within and about him; they seek expression in the only way he knows how. So the writer writes; in this case, essays and reportage. The writer must write; something, anything. If not fiction, then something else. The novelist, thwarted, now seeks release in essays, which now bear the marks of having functioned as receptacles for his charged outpourings. Naipaul thus points us toward the notion of the writer as driven by energies that need discharging. (Failure to do so–in the right way, or at all–might account for some of the misery that writers seem to constantly experience.)

Third, the process of writing, the work of putting words to paper (or screen), now makes possible that which previously was not: the bringing forth of a novel. As the late Roger Ebert once noted, ‘The muse only visits while you work.” Here too, Naipaul confirms for us the wisdom of that observation. If inspiration for a novel is not forthcoming, then perhaps it might be facilitated by the writer’s best trick: writing. The very act of writing is the spur which brings forth the hitherto missing spark.

We may thus extract advice for the writer: You will often find yourself not able to write; inspiration will be felt lacking; at those moments commit to writing something, anything, even if not what you would have originally wanted to write; out of this seeming diversion, you might yet find a way back to the path you had originally wanted to set out on.

Rust Cohle and Naked’s Johnny

As I watched Rust Cohle in True Detective, it occurred to me he reminded me–in some ways–of another character I had found memorable; Johnny in Mike Leigh‘s Naked, . Johnny doesn’t seem to have a quite as philosophically inflected take on life as Cohle, but his dialogue delivery makes his lines epics of rage and dry cynicism.

As Roger Ebert described him:

From the way he talks and certain things he refers to, we gradually conclude that he has had an education – is an “intellectual,” in that his opinions are mostly formed from words, not feelings….It’s not that we like him or approve of him, but that we must admire the dogged way he sticks to his guns and forges ahead through misery, anger and despair.

The Wikipedia entry for Naked notes:

Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical: he will fight and provoke anyone he meets to prove his superiority. His tactics of choice in verbal interaction are based on a particular form of intellectual bullying, uniformly directed at people less cultured than himself, and summed up in domineering, scholastic barrages drawn from eclectic sources. His overall behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times borderline sadistic, and shows a penchant for aggressive sexual domination at least twice throughout the film. He seduces Louise’s flatmate, Sophie, simply because he can, but soon gets tired of her and embarks on an extended latter-day odyssey among the destitute and despairing of the United Kingdom’s capital city.

During his encounters in London’s seedy underbelly, Johnny expounds his world-view (which in different instances seems to be fatalistnihilist or transhumanist) at long and lyrical length to anyone who will listen, whether Archie, a Scottish boy yelling “Maggie!” at the top of his voice he comes across in Brewer Street, or Brian, a security guard of acres of empty space, ‘a post-Modernist gas chamber’, whom Johnny marks down as having, ‘the most tedious job in England’.

Johnny’s condition[edit]

It is subtly hinted throughout the movie that Johnny’s unusual personality and behaviour could be the result of a variety of (presumably undiagnosed and untreated) medical conditions, including manic depression and whatever it is that causes him to experience episodic, severe headaches. In the scene in the top room of the flat, where an obviously concussed Johnny mistakes the landlord for someone else, Johnny seems to portray a young boy fearful of physical and maybe even sexual abuse from an adult, hinting also at a probable very early cause for his outlook and behaviour. These conditions are certainly affecting him physically, so much so that one of the characters he meets thinks he is about 40 years old, when he is only 27.

 Here are some of his epic rants.

Exhibit #1:

Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

Exhibit #2:

Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?

Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.

Exhibit #3:

Johnny: Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you’ve got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn’t even mind, but you don’t even have a fuckin’ future, I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?… He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6… What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin’ barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they’re planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they’re planning to do, what they’ve already tested on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl! Fact. On August the 18th, 1999, the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross… They’re gonna line up in the signs of Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio, which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse, as mentioned in the book of Daniel, another fuckin’ fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Brian, the game is up!

Brian: I don’t believe that. Life can’t just come to a stop.

Johnny: All right, I’m not saying that life will end or the world will end, or the universe will cease to exist. But man will cease to exist! Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us! We’re not fuckin’ important! We’re just a crap idea!

Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

I often disagreed with Roger Ebert‘s rating of movies. Sometimes, our disagreement would be a simple matter of Ebert being a little too kind, a little too forgiving. The latest instance of this discord may be found in our differing assessments of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus. Ebert gives it four stars. I don’t.

I found Prometheus to be a failure as a horror film, a philosophical meditation, or an action movie.   A few visually striking images, some memorable set pieces and an interesting character–the android David–did not compensate for a movie that felt stale quite quickly.

My disappointments began early. Indeed, matters go rapidly downhill once the humans wake up from their hibernatory slumbers on the good ship Prometheus, Their motivations–despite the avowedly profound goal they declare themselves dedicated too–are not particularly interesting and neither are their resultant interactions. Try as I did, I found it hard to get worked up about their fates. So in a movie whose central characters frequently emphasize their soul-centric humanity to their android interlocutor, it is the latter is that is more emotionally affecting, a more compelling focus of our attention and interest. (I think I could have stood a version of Prometheus–shorter, of course–that features David navigating–by himself–the mysteries and attractions of  the LV-223 moon).

The central conceits of the movie–that it can simultaneously terrify, edify and entertain–are rendered false by its failure to address any of these goals with consistency and depth. The horror scenes strive, and fail, to put new spin on old, familiar tropes, sometimes drawn from close by in the director’s own oeuvre; the debates between science and religion–as ludicrously instantiated in human form in its characters– are sketchy; the central speculation–creation and design of humans by giant, really buff dudes who look like Olympians on ‘roids and live in a galaxy far, far away–isn’t particularly exciting; the action scenes suffer from a familiar modern failure: sound and fury with no heart. I am a little baffled by some of the critical acclaim the film has garnered; so impressed are the critics it seems by the overt claims of the film to profundity–the origin of man, the central epistemic and moral crisis of the science versus religion conflict–that they seem not to have examined the evidence presented to them.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps. It might also be that when I am presented with glittering surfaces, I expect sublime depth will follow.  Prometheus fails because it seems to devote a great deal of energy in getting its stage to look good without bothering itself with the human-machine-creatures conflict supposed to play out on it. Strangely enough, by the end of the movie, so stricken had I become by the ennui dispensed by its central human characters, that I stopped caring about the human planet itself. I was curiously unaffected by any response approaching anxiety as the mighty Engineer’s spacecraft took off on its putatively Earth-destructive mission; and so, concomitantly, unafflicted by any pride or joy in Captain Janek’s Kamikaze-like ramming action.

Prometheus aspired, I think, to a kind of greatness; its failure is correspondingly larger.

56-Up: Checking In With ‘Old Friends’

Roger Ebert once referred to Michael Apted‘s Up series as the ‘noblest project in cinema history.’ In writing his review of 56-Up–the latest installment in the story of the Fab Fourteen–Ebert disowned those words as ‘hyperbole’ but its easy to see why he might have thought so. It is as straightforward–and as complicated–a film project as could be: take fourteen children, interview them at the age of seven about their vision of life and what it holds for them, and then, every seven years, meet them again to ‘check in.’ The original premise might have been to explore whether the British class system affected a child’s world-view and whether it locked their lives into unalterable trajectories, but over the years the Up series has grown into something else: an episodic cinematic document of a tiny cross-section of humanity.

Fourteen ‘ordinary’ people; fourteen ‘ordinary’ lives. Hardly the stuff of riveting storytelling, or so you’d think. Thirteen of them are white, one is black, four women, all are English. This is not even a very representative sample of the world’s humanity. And yet. somehow, over the years, they’ve managed to captivate millions all over the world who tune in, faithfully, every seven years.

Every viewer of the series has his or her own personal reasons for remaining riveted to it, for eagerly awaiting the next installment. In my case, it has been because, like many others, I’ve become personally interested in the fortunes of its participants, not out of pure voyeuristic curiosity, but because I’ve been growing too, and often find immediate, sharp, and personal resonances with their lives. There is the sometimes incoherent, sometimes acute vision of the seven-year old, the callow, rash pronouncements of the teenager and young adult, the maturing, sometimes rueful perspectives of the thirty and forty-somethings, and now, the slow, low, sometimes content glow of the mid-fifties. (They’re ahead of me; I’m not fifty yet, though the gap between my age and theirs has shrunk!)

It would be a mistake to say every life examined on this show demonstrates some universal truth or anything like that. Rather, each one showcases, in part, some of life’s fortunes and misfortunes; some get more than fair share of the hard knocks. But it is in the adding up, in the rendering of a composite image that one is able to see a glimmer of the complexity and variety of human existence: present and missing parents, loves–lost and found, illness and good health, passion and anger, ruefulness and exultation.

Of  the various cinematic techniques invented by directors over the years, I find the epilogue particularly poignant: the passage of time and persons, the looking back, the reckonings and accountings of a life.  Often it is because those episodes are tinged with regret for missed opportunities, sometimes because through them, we are brought face to face with the most basic facts of our existence: life is just one moment after another, the past already gone, the future yet to be realized. The Up series has often felt like a collection of epilogues even as we know–or at least believe and hope–another installment is forthcoming.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m looking forward to 63-Up.

RIP Roger Ebert

I don’t read movie reviews before I see a movie; I read them afterwards. I don’t like running into spoilers and I dislike the idea of not making up my own mind about a movie. Once I’ve seen the movie, I’ve formed an opinion, which remains relatively impervious to the critiques of others. But still, just as I like to discuss a book with its other readers, reading what someone else thought about a movie I’ve seen remains an activity I often look forward to. But not with too many folks. (Like I said, I have strong opinions about movies.) Over the last dozen years or so, Andrew O’Hehir and Roger Ebert were among the movie critics I read on anything more than a sporadic basis; I used to read Matt Stoller Seitz back when he wrote for the New York Press but lost him along the way. (I’m not counting film theory here, of which I read a great deal a long time ago, and then gave up, frustrated by its inability to resonate with my movie-watching experience.)

Roger Ebert was not, I think, considered a high-brow movie critic by most. He did not, for instance, regularly invoke French new wave cinema, the hallmark of the critic who aspires to high-brow-ness. (The additional hyphen is necessary to distinguish that attitude from high-brownness, which is a ranking that many Anglophone middle-class Indians aspire to.) But he still managed to write wisely, and most importantly, like a fan of the movies. He did not write from a distance, from the lofty perspective of someone interested more in auteurs and the grammar of the cinema, but rather as someone you could imagine lining up for tickets at the local multiplex and arthouse alike, infected by impatient passion and the lust for fantasy and good storytelling that is the hallmark of the movie-lover. (In my graduate school days, a roommate of mine once complained about a movie I wanted to rent that its kind were ‘too narrative’; I cannot imagine Ebert using this as a critical cudgel on any movie.) He wrote about movies with feeling, and was never shy about letting his readers know about the movies that emotionally resonated with him.

I sometimes found him too kind on movies I disliked, and over the years had started to develop an instinct for when we would disagree. I would find myself muttering under my breath, ‘I bet Ebert has given this three stars’ even as I clicked on the review link.  But I put it down to him being older and kinder than me. I’m not being patronizing when I say this; I still cannot describe the basis for these disagreements other than to say that I was more impatient than he was. Conversely, I did not dislike one movie that he absolutely, positively loathed: The Village. I remain mystified by why he hated it as much as he did. I could understand two stars, but one?

A critic is a writer, and Ebert had many good lines, some of them infused with rich wisdom. There is one that I am still fond of quoting to my students when they come to me for advice on writing papers: The muse only visits while you work. This one is for the ages; it’s true and it’s simple. Thanks.

RIP Roger.