Jorge Luis Borges: Grand Architect of the Dreamscape

Taken from:

thelastsyllableblog.wordpress.com 

Featured on The State Of The Arts magazine:

http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/36110/

 

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be some kind of library” – J.L.B.

Jorge Luis Borges was perhaps the finest and most puissant artificer of literary puzzles the 20th century saw. In the past I have spent much time lauding similar qualities in his American contemporary and purveyor of transcendent sci-fi Philip K Dick, an equally skilful creator and destroyer of convoluted fictional worlds, yet not once have I mentioned this titan of Latin American literature. Well, it is time to address that.

I came across the Argentine’s work in my final year of University, in the middle of a module that focussed on Narrative, specifically what interesting things could be done with such an intangible yet integral literary concept. A few of Borges’ short stories absolutely blew me away and, like Philip K Dick, he is an accomplished grand-master of the twist ending. However, where Phil Dick needs 200 pages to first create then spectacularly invert and destroy his reader’s world, Borges needs only 2.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Jorge Luis Borges became a prolific and successful short-story writer and poet, as well as an esteemed translator and essayist. Blending a deeply philosophical literary style with plot elements that belong firmly in the realm of fantasy, it is fair to say that Borges blazed the trail for various writers of the Latin-American tradition of magical-realism such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and directors of film including Claudia Llosa and Patricio Guzman. Borges’ stories revolve around recurring motifs such as labyrinths and libraries, with one particularly memorable story being set in an infinite hexagonal library filled with every book that ever was or will be written*; indeed Borges’ prose borrows much from the dream-world.

library

It was doubly fascinating studying Borges alongside another module which covered Representations of Trauma in Latin America. Indeed many South American authors and directors of various nationalities found in their work an escape from the horrors imposed upon them by various oppressive US-backed regimes; thus Magical Realism was a reaction against both the terrible situations found on a turbulent Latin-American continent and against the prevalent realism and naturalism of 19th century literature.

Seeing as I am due to embark upon my own South American Odyssey, it seems prudent that before I lose myself in the sublime wilds of Patagonia and vast jungles of the Pantanal, we had better lose ourselves in Borges…

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THE HOUSE OF ASTERION

One of Borges’ shortest short stories yet also one of his most devastating both in terms of his stylistic prowess and the effect his revelatory twist endings, ‘the house of Asterion’ begins as many of Borges’ stories do, with some bibliographic detail that firmly anchors the story within the realms of historical reality: prefaced in this case with a quote from a presumably ancient historian; “and the queen gave birth to a child, who was named Asterion – Appollodrus Bibliotecha III, I”. The story is then told from the point of view of the eponymous Asterion, whose erudite and graceful language seemingly betrays his noble birth in the minds of the reader.

Asterion then proceeds to tell us about life from his point of view. He lives a lonely existence, presumably kept in isolation from commoners due to his royal lineage, declaring “not for nothing was my mother a queen.” He occasionally performs a ceremonial ritual that is expected of him, freeing commoners from their curses or “freeing them from evil”, but aside from that spends his days running and charging through the cavernous halls of his house alone, pretending to be various animals.

Asterion’s house has 14 identical doorways and hallways, Borges the editor here annotating 14 as probably the highest number Asterion has ever needed to count to and therefore being analogous for infinity. Asterion observes that his house is “as big as the world, or rather it is the world.”

Borges even gives Asterion is own theology; having spent his entire life in near-isolation Asterion has the very human urge to make sense of his world, musing “Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house. Perhaps I no longer remember.”

All of these small, human details serve to wrong-foot his reader. And it is with spectacular effect, in a moment of vertigo-inducing inversion, that Borges pulls the carpet out from underneath his readers…

“The morning sun reflected from the bronze sword. There was no longer any vestige of blood. ‘Would you believe it Ariadne?’ said Theseus, ‘The minotaur scarcely defended itself!’

The Minotaur 1885 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

The Minotaur 1885 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904 Presented by the artist 1897 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01634

Borges revelation that Asterion is in fact the Cretan Minotaur from ancient Greek myth is made all the more sensational by Borges’ skill as a writer, whose clever attention to detail shows us a completely human side to a creature otherwise regarded as in-human. The small things such as Asterion’s theology, his loneliness, the games he plays, his descriptions of his ‘house’, all wrong-foot the reader, resulting in the following two things: An intensification of Borges’ stomach-churning twist ending and also the realisation that over the course just two pages, Borges has forced us to unknowingly reconsider the universe from the point of view of a creature we would normally consider completely different to ourselves. A worthy achievement for a writer working through a century of unprecedented racial and ideological conflict.

escher-labyrinth-

It is with a heavy heart then, that with the passing of one famous denizen of a Labyrinth, I get the opportunity to introduce the architect of another. ‘The House of Asterion’ is but one scintillating example of Jorge Luis Borges’ evocative work. Scattered throughout his collections of fiction are others, as multitudinous as the books in his infinite library of Babylon and every bit as worthy of discovery.

(Words taken from my feature done for The State of The Arts magazine, January 2016)

 

RECOMMENDED SHORT STORIES & WORKS:

THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS

*THE LIBRARY OF BABEL.

THE CIRCULAR RUINS

“The Aleph”

“Ficciones”

“Labyrinths”

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The Last Syllable – Jorge Luis Borges: Part 1

Jorge Luis Borges was perhaps the finest and most puissant artificer of literary puzzles the 20th century saw. It is perhaps ironic that I have spent so much time lauding similar qualities in his American contemporary Philip K Dick, an equally skilful creator and destroyer of convoluted fictional worlds, and not once mentioned this titan of Latin American literature. Well, let us address that.

I came across the Argentine’s work in my final year, in the middle of a module that revolved around Narrative and what interesting things could be done with such an intangible yet integral literary concept. A few of Borges’ short stories absolutely blew me away and, like Philip K Dick, he is a master of the twist ending. However, where Phil Dick needs 200 pages to create then spectacularly invert and destroy his reader’s world, Borges needs only 2.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Jorge Luis Borges became a prolific and successful short-story writer and poet, as well as an esteemed translator and essayist. Blending a deeply philosophical style with elements that belong firmly in the realm of fantasy, it is fair to say that Borges blazed the trail for various writers of the Latin-American tradition of magical-realism.

It was doubly interesting studying Borges alongside another module which covered Representations of Trauma in Latin America. Indeed many South American authors of various nationalities found in their work an escape from the horrors imposed upon them by various oppressive US-backed regimes; thus Magical Realism was a reaction against both the terrible situations found on the Latin American continent and against the realism and naturalism of 19th century literature.

Seeing as I am due to embark upon my own South American Odyssey, it seems prudent that before I lose myself in the sublime wilds of Patagonia, we had better lose ourselves in Borges…

I had only previously read two of Borges’ more famous short stories, The Garden of Forking Paths and The House of Asterion respectively, and I therefore felt it imperative to further immerse myself in more of the Argentine’s work.  Having picked up a copy of Ficciones for an absolute steal online, I have since found myself trapped in an infinite hexagonal library containing every book ever written, before wandering into the jungle to find a sorcerer dreaming and conjuring in circular ruins. I have drawn lots from the lottery of Babylon, and I have marvelled as seemingly sincere literary criticism manifests itself in real life. Borges’ writing reflects and even imitates the dream-world; his words embrace the contradictory truisms that one takes on board without question in dreams, despite their often absurd impossibility.

So let’s have a look at what Borges actually does.

THE HOUSE OF ASTERION:

In Asterion Borges depicts the world from the point of view of its eponymous main character, who details various aspects of his world as he knows it. His explanation of his comings and goings in his ‘house’ are decidedly odd but nonetheless not beyond the readers experience. Asterion eloquently rejects certain defamatory claims that he is arrogant, anti-social and mad; ‘I know that I am accused of arrogance, and perhaps of misanthropy, and perhaps even of madness.’[1] But nonetheless Asterion puts his solitude down to his royal blood and prides himself as a unique being, ‘Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot mix with commoners, even if my modesty should wish it.’ He spends his days playing in his ‘house’ described by Borges in somewhat animalistic terms, ‘sometimes I run like a charging ram…sometimes I crouch in the shadow…I can pretend any time I like that I am asleep.’ Borges here supplying the first clue that Asterion is perhaps something other than human.

Lacking any other social stimuli, Asterion creates and inhabits his own world. A world where the number fourteen is equivalent to infinity (presumably because it is the highest Asterion has ever needed to count…), a world where a ‘house’ is in-reality a Labyrinth and his killing of men is in-fact a ceremonial duty expected of him; ‘every nine years, nine men come into my house so that I can free them from all evil.’ These trivial details serve to anchor the reader within Asterion’s world.  Asterion even creates his own theology, musing ‘there are two things in the world that exist but once – on high, the intricate sun, and below, Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this huge house and no longer remember it.’ Asterion has presumably never been told a creation story, and lacking an explanation thus creates his own, in itself a very human concept. This, coupled with lonesome Asterion’s remark that ‘the nights and days are long’ serves to humanise Asterion in the mind of the reader, who at this point still does not know the reality of Asterion and his house. The genius of Borges shows itself again at the end, where Borges finally turns the entire narrative on its head revealing Asterion at the end to in fact be the Cretan Minotaur of ancient Greek myth, slain thus by Theseus, ‘“Can you believe it Ariadne?” said Theseus. “The Minotaur scarcely defended itself.”

Borges inverts a three thousand year old story, subverting our expectation of a bloody and heroic battle between the Minotaur and Theseus, supplanting it instead with a version that lacks the risk and heroism of the ancient myth. This is Borges the puzzle maker at his best,  and by depicting Asterion as a proudly complex yet pathetically lonely creature, one who has existential anxieties just like us, Borges reverses our sympathies towards a creature rarely considered anything more than a monster.

Borges revelation that Asterion is in fact the Cretan Minotaur forces us as readers to reassess what constitutes a world, both within fiction and without. As western readers at least somewhat familiar with the ancient Greek myth-world, we do not expect to ever sympathise with Asterion, and the fact that Borges depicts him sympathetically is indicative of an author who wanted his readers and the wider world to reassess their approach to all conflict, to consider life from the view point of a being who may look different, but underneath possesses all the same trappings of humanity. On a more objective level, The House of Asterion is a prime example of an intricately constructed and convincing literary microcosm, which Borges then deconstructs to spectacular revelatory effect.

Taken from The Last Syllable – An Emulsion of Dust and Drugs

thelastsyllableblog.wordpress.com

The American Dream is Dead and it’s buried in the Mojave Desert…

It might sound absolutely crackers to compare a novel chronicling the plight of dustbowl farmers and their doomed migration across western America with a debauched recollection of a three-day narcotics-fuelled bender in Las Vegas… but fuck it I’m going to do just that.

You see, dear reader, I have been to the Promised Land. I have set foot in the new world. And do you know what I found out? The American Dream is dead and it is buried in the Mohave desert.

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Earlier this year at the recommendation of a number of friends, and in light of my own pilgrimage to Nevada edging ever closer, I picked up Hunter S Thompson’s perennial Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Thomson’s work struck chords with me, despite hailing from a different continent and different generation. In the horrifying wake of a tory majority for the first time in my living memory, I couldn’t help but empathise with the wanton despair Thompson so accessibly conveys whilst mourning the death of the American left at the beginning of the 1970’s. To a man as concrete in his left-leaning convictions as Thompson was (and here I’ll direct you to Hunter’s hilarious tactic of shaving his hair off in order to refer to his republican mayoral opponent as ‘my long haired friend’), the advent of the Nixon administration after the relative domestic successes of JFK and LBJ’s presidential terms must have seemed a political apocalypse, heightened of course by the televised horrors of Rolling Thunder and ‘peace with honour’ and the subsequent urban decay seen throughout 1970’s America.

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“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”

Indeed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s magnum opus that spawned the subjective ‘Gonzo’ style that has been so influential in the modern age of journalism (would we have ‘Vice’ without doctor Gonzo? Is that even a good thing??), can be seen as an exhumation of the American dream. Messrs Duke and Gonzo go to Las Vegas because they know the American dream is buried there. I mean where else can a nobody become a somebody as quickly and as easily as in Las Vegas? Gonzo and Duke, recognising it as the neon-edged headstone that it is, exhume the American Dream, check it’s pulse whilst freaking out on mescaline, drag it round various hotel rooms and casinos whilst the Indy 400 takes place on the Nevada sands, before solemnly burying it again in a pile of Adrenochrome and Cocaine.

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

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Walking wistfully down Las Vegas boulevard, looking between looming hotels and conference centres out upon the vast plain beyond, you realise… none of it should be there. Nowhere else in the world can you walk through the desert at in forty degree heat, finding yourself being sprinkled by fresh water vapour streaming selflessly into the arid night air purely to keep you cool. No other desert in the world has lush flower beds, expansive water features, Casinos and strip clubs on every corner. Take me back.

“No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”

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Perhaps HST has rubbed off on me, I feel like I’m digressing on one of his infamously subjective and viciously entertaining tangents, but there is a point to all this somewhere… I am sure of it.

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Yet Vegas, in all its artificial glory, somehow makes a mockery of the plight of those doomed souls who braved the dustbowl, sojourning through equally barren deserts toward the false promise of a better life in the west. I mean this is a place where anyone can make a million. What could possibly be a better embodiment of the American psyche? It matters not a whit who you are or whether you have any wits, it matters only that the turn of card and wheel ensnare you, moth-like, drawn towards and consumed by a neon flame.

“But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.”

Admittedly, the link between these two works is a tenuous one, but at their core the dusty corpse of the American Dream unites them. The searing, indulgent wit of Hunter S Thompson reads nothing like the bleak poetry that pervades Steinbeck’s nihilistic prose. Both Thompson and his literary icon Fitzgerald write of (and dare I say in) excess, be it the bootlegged mint Julep-soaked hedonism of the Jazz-age (The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise et al) or the rakish depravity and sheer nerve of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas session.

“Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air.” 

Whereas Steinbeck writes of abject poverty. His novel is an Odyssey of bitterly crushed dreams and unspeakable hardships. It is an intensely poetic work, indeed the title of this feature is derived from the above quote which resonated with me for some reason. One might find the juxtaposition of poetry and the dustbowl struggle troubling; however I found it probably the most humane and dignified way of weaving such a terrific tapestry of human suffering.

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Steinbeck is more original in his writing than I ever had cause to believe before picking up The Grapes of Wrath. Structurally Steinbeck is very clever. He alternates the focus of his chapters for both dramatic and emotional effect. A long chapter of intense human suffering, usually focussed on the Joad family as they make their perilous way west, illustrates the personal plight and endearing strength of the family unit whilst developing his characters in the mind of the reader. These chapters are punctuated with a shorter chapter, usually only three or four pages long, which tell the story from an almost omniscient voice which focusses on the situation as a whole for the millions of dustbowl migrants. The effect of these contrasting chapters is devastating, allowing for a poetical break from the heavy plot, subtly giving the reader a chance to digest Steinbeck’s bleak tale. One allegorical chapter in particular sticks in the memory, one devoted entirely to a tortoises’ agonising journey across the scorched asphalt of the highway road; Steinbeck metaphorically uses this image to foreshadow the Joad families struggle to maintain dignity whilst making their way, ever so slowly, through hell.

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Make no mistake, Steinbeck and Thompson’s works are on the surface vastly different novels, miles and miles apart in terms of style and execution. Despite my foolishly ambitious scope in attempting to link them, I am not looking to draw some revelatory conclusion forever linking the two works in the minds of the wider literary community, or even whoever is kind enough to read this blog. I merely saw both novels as a eulogy to the American Dream. The Joads, like Gatsby before them, realise at the last that the dream is a fallacy; this is in turn certainly conveyed by Steinbeck’s significantly anti-capitalist tone in his intervening chapters, here he portrays the corporations and banks as living monsters, wholly evil and beyond the comprehension of lowly tenant farmers…

“Sure, cried the tenant men,but it’s our land…We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….That’s what makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”

“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

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Thus Thompson has mournfully read such eulogies and, in a fit of mescaline induced rage, exhumes the dream for one last hurrah, before the apocalyptic curtain of the Nixon era has finally fallen upon his idealistic America of the sixties.

I’ve been mulling this article/feature/piece/whatever the fuck this is over for a while now, trying to come up with some kind of poetic epiphany, a unifying and deeply satisfying final conclusion to wrap things up nicely… And whilst on a flight heading back into sunny Leeds, propellors desperately dragging us through a belligerent Yorkshire gale, it came to me… No one can sum up the mournful exasperation Thomson and Steinbeck share when writing of the American Dream better than the man himself, Hunter S Thompson:

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PAGE 371, HST FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72:

“Hear me people: We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break and the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”          – Cheif Sitting Bull, speaking at the Powder River Conference 1877

“The Powder River Conference ended ninety five years ago, but the old Chief’s baleful analysis of the White Man’s rape of the American continent was just as accurate then as it would be today if he came back from the dead and said it for the microphones on prime time TV. The ugly fallout from the American Dream has been coming down on us at a pretty constant rate since Sitting Bull’s time – and the only real difference now, with Election Day ’72 only a few weeks away, is that we seem to be on the verge of ratifying the fallout and forgetting the Dream itself…”

J M Roche, November 2015

The Last Syllable

The Shifting Unrealities and Permeable Constructs of Philip K Dick: A feature by myself taken from thelastsyllableblog.wordpress.com

 

The Man In The High Castle is nigh.

For those who haven’t seen any trailers, I can reveal with some anticipation that Amazon Studios and Ridley Scott are bringing us Philip K Dick’s chilling vision of what might have happened had the Nazi’s won world war two. Philip K Dick’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Man In The High Castle, intricately blended the worlds of science-fiction and alternate history. Dick depicts a pseudo modern world where the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan emerged victorious from the Second World War and subsequently enter into a bitter Cold War of their own…

dick

Immediately such a narrative, being a complete contrast to our own world where the Allies won, is alien and requires the power of Dick’s vision and skill with narrative to prop up within the minds of the reader. Dick accomplishes this through his faux-historical writing, weaving an entirely convincing historical chronicle as a backstory to a world we know to be in conflict with our own. It is the intensity and detail of Dick’s vision that establishes it as believable within the minds of his readers. Dick chronicles a world where Franklin Roosevelt never won election in 1934, where a weak republican United States government refused to re-arm or be drawn into a war alongside Britain and Russia, resulting in the Axis powers dominating the United States of ‘High Castle’. Dick populates his alternate America with relatively benevolent Japanese conquerors, who consider old examples of pre-war American culture highly valuable, and as such trashy items of Americana are considered by the Japanese as ‘antique’ as an original Chippendale cabinet would be to a collector in our reality…(‘Ah’ the man said, his dark eyes flashing. ‘And a Victrola cabinet of 1920 made into a liquor cabinet.’ ‘Ah.’ ‘And sir, listen; framed signed picture of Jean Harlow.’ The man goggled at him. ‘Shall we make arrangements?’ Childan said, seizing this correct psychological instant.) All of this renders Dick’s unreality that bit more realistic, and hopefully after a successful translation to TV, yields spectacular results.

Like many of the world’s greatest and most visionary artists, Philip Kindred Dick was not truly appreciated whilst he was alive. Dick died in 1982, a matter of months before Ridley Scott’s adaptation of his work, entitled Blade Runner, opened in cinemas. In a modern age of total digital immersion, where technology infuses itself throughout every aspect of our day-to-day lives, it is perhaps easier to see why Dick didn’t attain the level of critical and popular acclaim he so deserved… we weren’t ready for him.

I could bang on about him and his work until the sun flickers and dies… and I will.

But who was Phil K Dick?

Dick was the prescient, deeply resonant mind behind some of Hollywood’s most successful and most thought-provoking science-fiction films of the past thirty five years. Writing fiction throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, Dick’s fiction asks metaphysical and philosophical questions, whilst reflecting themes of monopolistic corporate evil and altered states of consciousness. This combined to devastating effect with a vivid imagination that posthumously inspired several Hollywood science fiction blockbusters. Most people have never heard of the man, yet the catalogue of titanic films that took their inspiration or were directly sourced from his work is astonishing; Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), Minority Report, Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau to name but some of the more renowned examples.

Blade_Runner_poster

Dick was concerned with the endlessly replicating realities of modernity, something which, in an era of videogames, smartphones and the internet, strikes an even clearer chord, and it is no doubt this which lends his work a transcendent and cutting-edge modern quality. When reading what I regard as his Magnum Opus, Ubik (1969), you are transported to Dick’s vision of 1992 where you are introduced to the idea of ‘Prudence Organisations’, corporations whose duty it is to protect, or steal, a person’s thoughts for financial gain… In an age of personalised advertising based upon each individuals internet browsing history, in a world where the intellectual property and preferences of people using social media are worth billions of dollars behind closed doors, it is all the more remarkable to consider Dick was actually writing nearly half a century ago.

Ubik also introduces us to the idea of ‘cold-pac’ or ‘half-life; a technology enabling a state of suspended animation after death, which can, for a price, keep ones loved ones in a state of limbo, able to talk and communicate, halfway between life and death (“I’ll consult my dead wife” concludes main character Glen Runciter within the opening pages). This process is integral to Dick’s novel, yet to me it is eerily reminiscent of social media accounts functioning after a loved one’s death, and in a world where artificial intelligence is nigh-on impossible to separate from human, are we really that far away from robots operating social media accounts as a source of comfort, much like the ‘cold-pac’ that features so heavily in Ubik?

ubik

Dick’s fiction is one of questions asked, not answers provided. Indeed, Dick thought of himself less as a novelist, more as a philosopher who asked his questions through the medium of story-telling. Thus reality in Dick’s novels is never quite what it seems. This is a consequence of a driving conviction of Dick’s; that what we call a reality is subjective and cannot be qualified as ‘real’ by any measurable observation. Dick was an intensely philosophical thinker, and wrote extensive essays and papers on his beliefs, which were at the very least deeply spiritual and sometimes bordered on the futile and delusional. Regardless this conviction, that essentially there is no way to distinguish a collective reality from subjective unreality*, permeates Dick’s creative writing; in that his worlds are populated by robots indistinguishable from humans (Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream), artificially implanted memories (Total Recall/Remember It For You Wholesale) and even entire worlds that collapse in on themselves (Ubik & The Man In The High Castle). This is indicative of an author tortured by a combination of modernity and a genuine conviction that his surrounding reality was anything but real.

If reading these words has even slightly invoked your curiosity then I can sleep soundly at night knowing I at least have done my part to ensure that such a true visionary gets the recognition he deserves as a writer, and not just as the progenitor of the modern, critically worthwhile Sci-Fi blockbuster. However, do not just take my word for it, lose yourself in the shifting realities and permeable constructs of perhaps America’s most avant-garde writer of the 20th century. The genius of novels such as Ubik, The Man In The High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (the list after all goes on) lies in Dick’s genuinely gripping narratives and endearingly human(??) characters, who are confronted with the very same existential concerns that formed such an integral part of Dick’s psyche as a philosopher and his far-reaching vision as the preeminent writer-prophet of credible science-fiction.

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Believe me, there will be a twist in the tale.

J M Roche, October 2015

*You play or witness the immersive likes of Second Life and Grand Theft Auto and try tell me people aren’t beginning to choose their reality…

“So I ask, in my writing, what is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated electronic mechanisms… and it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes…and I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.” – Philip K Dick, 1978

Recommended Works of Philip K Dick:

The Man In The High Castle (1962 Hugo Award Winner)
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Ubik (1969)
A Scanner Darkly (1977)
The Exegesis (1978)

The Last Syllable

Kurzel’s Macbeth; full of sound and fury

It is important, nay, essential, for a Hollywood director of Shakespeare, whom, benefitting from the inherent advantages his medium provides him, must read the play and draw forth that which isn’t necessarily on the page. It is what you can draw from the play that lends greatness to your representation of it, on stage or on screen. Kurzel does this, spectacularly so with the aid of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and thus successfully translates many of the subtextual themes that are so key to understanding Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most visceral tragedies.

I massively enjoyed Kurzel’s Macbeth, Fassbender is tortured and curious, murderous and mad in exactly the right quantities at exactly the right moments. Cotillard likewise is as insidiously ambitious as she is vulnerable and bereaved. Her child-like frame and vestal attire is at an intentional, stark contrast to her venomous plotting and viscous bating of her husband’s manhood, whose physical presence further emphasises this contrast.

Kurzel and Arkapaw fantastically capture the supernatural, otherworldly atmosphere of the Scottish play, utilising breath-taking highland scenery and evocative battle-scenes set against the fire and ash of Birnam wood to give the film an almost alien feel to it. This is intensified by Kurzel’s decision to retain the original Shakespearean dialogue, which in combination with authentic Scottish accents really conveys the feeling that what is happening before us is archaically savage, not of this world.
Kurzel heavily plays upon Macbeth’s subtextual theme of Children, specifically the child that he and his wife seem to be mourning. Kurzel manifests several of the ghostly visions that Macbeth sees as involving children, or child-soldiers onto whom he obviously projects his own lost son and heir. The iconic ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ line is infused with dramatic poignancy when carried by the ghost of Macbeth’s lost son and heir. Indeed Kurzel picks up on Macbeth’s own anxiety regarding his lack of heir, which is subsequently turned into murderous paranoia by the prophecy of the weird sisters, indeed this lack of a male heir is equated with a lack of potency, a lack of masculinity for Macbeth.

The fact that Kurzel picks up on this does not make his production unique, however it is refreshing to see a Hollywood director giving it the prominence he does. Children are everywhere in his Macbeth; be it on screen as child-soldiers and their ghosts or in the pained speech of Marion Cotillard as she mourns her babe. To reinforce the recurring theme, Kurzel even adds another child-witch to the ranks of the weird sisters, who as a non-speaking character silently drives home Kurzel’s overpowering point; Macbeth is as much a tragedy of children lost as it is about a crown won. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that Shakespeare himself lost his only son, young Hamnet, and it is this which lends true ferocity to the infanticide on screen, in that this tragedy is as much about an anxiety of progeny as it is about flawed ambition and the subsequent paranoia and madness that comes with it.

The play is a bloody miscarriage of nature, and this is translated well by the graphic violence in the film, reaching its raw height when Macbeth repeatedly stabs his King as he sleeps.

There are however, a few things which Kurzel does not get right. Kurzel’s retention of the original iambic pentameter, whilst admirable from a literary standpoint, nonetheless gets somewhat swept away by the pace the film moves at, and in combination with thick Scottish brogues amounts to an authentic feel at the expense of actually fully grasping the direction and rhythm of Shakespeare’s poetry. Many of Shakespeare’s weighted couplets are lost at the end of scenes, though it must be said this could well be down to the medium. It is a lot easier to appreciate (or even catch) the language of Shakespeare when listening to an actor enunciate live to an audience, than it is to hear Fassbender or Cotillard over the howl of highland winds.

The name of this proto-blog or literary feature (I’ve yet to decide which ha) is derived from Macbeth’s final soliloquy, his ‘To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow’ speech in act 5 scene 5, one of my favourite passages from the Shakespearean canon, a primal howl into the chasm of inescapable death and lonesome life. Without ruining endings for readers, and something for which I can’t forgive him for, Kurzel chooses to make this iconic scene about Fassbender and Cotillard, which adds a pained romantic tinge to what is essentially an existential rage, the cold realisation of a mad king that he stares into the void.

Macbeth deserves such an adult, visceral Hollywood rendition. For one of Shakespeare’s most accessible, yet no less complex or poetically significant tragedies, to finally have a worthy modern update of and successor to Roman Polanski’s 1971 effort is something to celebrate. Full of sound and fury, Kurzel’s Macbeth certainly signifies something.

Lines composed on Weymouth pier.

Winds rush out as change rushes in

Bringing fear

Bearing lust

But not love.

 

 

Clouds move in and the sun is locked out

So light fades

And tides rise

Over love.

 

 

Look from the west at cliffs that stretch east

As wind howls

And buoys sink

‘neath loveless caress.

 

 

A storm gathers above those whose life is the sea

Young vessels flounder

Whilst they sit in duress

And white cliffs fade to grey.

 

 

So I look to the fort whose walls pale yet defy

Tempestuous orders

And hurried demands

Enduring years of torment.

 

 

And I learn from them whilst she takes from me

My youth

My mind

And my love.

 

 

Then she throws me over crystal battlements

Condemned

Chained

To a lake of fire.

 

 

I waste years in bondage to this dark agony

Waiting

Still

On Weymouth pier.

Terror Remembered – Berlin Holocaust Memorial

We have been asked, as part of our ‘Terror Remembered’ module, to condense our thoughts and reactions to every week’s worth of lectures and seminars into concise weekly blog posts. I’ve never personally been a fan of recording and publishing the minute and mundane trivialities of everyday life, as on their own they tend to hold little or no significance to anyone other than the individual experiencing them, as opposed to writing and collating a diary or memoir which holistically can amount to something altogether more significant. However, seeing as events as enduringly horrific as the Holocaust can hardly be deemed trivial, I hope you, the reader, will forgive my presumption that this will be insightful and thought-provoking…or at the very least, loquaciously entertaining.

My thoughts immediately ran to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. I experienced this representation of terror first hand in the summer of 2012, with Berlin being the second stop of our grand tour (also known as an inter-rail). I think it fair to say that 3 years ago I was probably a lot less receptive to the kinds of things ‘Terror Remembered’ is now encouraging us to consider, but still, listening to today’s explanation of Memory, Memorialisation and Representation got me thinking of those cold concrete blocks.

Looking back, I don’t think I quite ‘got’ the memorial whilst walking round its disorientating pathways, which take you deeper underground the further into the middle you walk. Blocks that hardly touch your knee on the edge of the memorial tower above your head by the time you get halfway across. I remember liking the memorial, but not quite understanding why a statue or sculpture did not suffice. I knew exactly what happened in the holocaust, but didn’t fathom why a memorial shouldn’t explicitly represent that, if that event was what they (its architect/commissioner) wanted people to remember.

Now, perhaps as an indirect result of nearly 3 years as an English student, I remember more than I saw that day. The sheer granite blocks are devoid of any humanity, reflecting the way that Jews and other minorities were dehumanised by the Nazi machine. Every day thousands of people stepped off those trains and were put to their deaths. Those deemed fit to work were shaved, stripped of all possessions and given numbers to replace their names. Their individuality was confiscated, and their humanity was denied. As you walk, the pathways descend and the ‘Stelae’ seem to grow to a monstrous size, in the same nightmarish way Nazi genocide grew from an anti-Semitic pipe dream into the industrialised slaughter of millions of human beings.

The memorial confused me, and at the time I think I was confused by my own confusion. The memorial allows you to consider what happened whilst physically walking around, and allows you to project your reaction onto it. In this sense I consider it to be an imaginative and tasteful representation of the terror and death visited upon millions of people. It is confusing and disorientating in the same way the holocaust is. A nightmare the world woke up to, is still struggling to comprehend, and must never forget.