As I've posted here before, I've been using Shelfari more and more, because of all the convenient features that are continually multiplied and expanding. It's really one of the neatest websites I've come along, and I again have to give my friend Matthew Miller props for turning me onto the site.
I'm posting here today primarily to point my readers to a new link. Shelfari has just remodeled their site and now has a specific page for all of each user's reviews. Mine can be viewed here.
This isn't to say I won't be using this LiveJournal any more. I will, but just for longer, more extensive reviews. And I've been thinking of updating my reading list here, which now has grown to at least 200 titles. As always, thanks to those little few who do still read my journal.
"I wish you sea, sun and books." - Nishio Ishin.
"Reason's final step is to recognize that there are an infinite number of things which surpass it."
"Christianity...is not a religion of law but a religion of creed."
I am a Christian, and have been since my youth. I don't often talk about this aspect of myself, and I haven't even gone to church since about 2002. (This isn't because I've lost my faith in Christ, but rather that I've lost my faith in the Christian church.) At the same time, I am a naturally curious person. As little time as I have (regrettably) spent studying it, I love science and nature, and have an inquiring disposition toward them. I like to think of myself as a logical and reasonable person. I believe that I am an open-minded person, as well. As most people who know me can tell you, folklore and folk life are one of my biggest interests. In other words, it is the things that to most people have the least worth that, to me, are of greatest interest. Also, while I don't like to place myself within the Democrat political party, I see myself as being mostly liberal, though there are a few areas in which I am very conservative.
All this is to say that while I'm open-minded, curious, skeptical, and reasonable, I am still a Christian. I have always felt that this is not a paradox in any way, and that Christianity is reasonable. Yet this view goes against almost all of the conventional logic in today's popular line of thinking. Atheism, if not actually on the rise, is ever more popular and visible.
And so when I looked briefly at Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity while working in the Religion section at the bookstore, it seemed to me exactly what I've been looking for. A book that examines Christianity in a reasonable and logical way, which counters atheism, and which does so in a way that reconciles religion and science, which I personally have never felt to be irreconcilable.
Happily, this is exactly what D'Souza's book is and does. One of the most interesting parts was the chapter analyzing Christianity's history with science. D'Souza shows that not only was modern science as we know it built on the foundation of Christianity, but also that all but a few morsels of the supposed history of science's war with religion are completely mythical. But even more memorable are the chapters on science itself, where D'Souza explores how principles of modern science actually support the idea of God, such as the Big Bang theory and the anthropic principle, to name a couple.
The book demonstrates that atheism is a philosophical, faith-based view of the universe that is not scientific in any way. It examines the tragedies perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion, and compares them to the tragedies committed in the name of atheism. It shows, through the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and David Hume, that scientific knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge there is, that it has clear and defined limits, and that to apply reason to matters outside the phenomenal realm is unreasonable. D'Souza exposes as a legend the idea of Galileo as a martyr of science against ignorant religion, and shows that the idea of the "war between science and religion" is composed mainly of cultural and historical myths, and that the current battle between evolutionists and creationists is extremely misguided (on the latter's part). It shows how the Big Bang and other modern scientific discoveries support, not detract from, a theistic view of the universe.
All that being said, I feel that it's just as important to discuss what the book does not do. The book does not undermine science or scientific knowledge. It does not attack the theory of evolution, nor claim that it is untrue. It does not rely on the Bible to make its arguments on the subjects of science, philosophy and reason, or history. D'Souza does not take for granted that his readers will agree with what he is saying, and so he takes rigorous pains to present his ideas in terms often used by those likely to disagree with him. In fact, he usually relies on entirely secular devices -- science, philosophy, logic -- to make his arguments. This sort of thing, a book which speaks in a modern language and addresses modern concerns about Christianity, is exactly what I have felt has been needed for a long time.
The only issue I can take with D'Souza's book is that there are very slight, very subtle colorations, in certain places, of the author's own, Republican opinions that not all readers, Christian or non-Christian, will agree with. However, this is only a minor complaint, since none of these instances are vital to any of the main points being discussed, and the arguments lose none of their clarity without these opinions.
On a similar note, as I read through this book I was constantly amazed by the clarity, logic and reasonableness of D'Souza's arguments, and so as I was in the midst of it, I began to try to find out more about the author. I pulled up Dinesh D'Souza on Wikipedia, and looked itno a few of his other books. As I had so much admired this book, I was surprised to find that D'Souza's political views are very different from mine, and that most of his other works do not at all look like anything I would be interested in reading. Particularly, his What's So Great About America seems to me as if a simplistic view of America's many good sides, and a dismissal of its many problems. So I can't say I really have any desire to read much more of Dinesh D'Souza's works. But this is an amazing thing: it only proves that regardless of one's political opinions, Christianity is relevant to everyone, and that the book's arguments, just like the Christianity it defends, are nonpartisan and democratic.
Jinn: A common question that arises when a character in a folktale meets a strange person is: “Are you Ins or Jinn?”, or, are you human being or spirit? This question suggests the division between two types of beings in Arab folk belief, the human and the jinn. Just as do human beings, the jinn have their own society, values, morals, dilemmas, and lives that mirror those of Arab culture. Within their spiritual world, jinn face the same everyday problems and situations as do human beings. It is into the category of jinn that all supernatural beings in Arab folklore fit. They live in the seventh layer of the earth, and their homes are often in abandoned wells or cisterns, and also in caves or ruined towns.
According to the Qur’an the jinn are spirits of fire and while they often act in evil ways, some are thought to be Muslim, capable of good deeds, and can be seen praying like humans. Jinn can be helpful or antagonistic toward humans, for jinn are capricious beings. Many stories involve a hero or heroine achieving a noble and honorable goal through the aid and advice of a jinn, and some stories even find them marrying a human lover. All jinn were made subject to King Suleiman (aka Solomon) during the course of his lifetime, and many invocations to or against the jinn will begin, “In the name of Suleiman the prophet!” They are master craftsmen, especially in metalwork. A heroine separated from her lover sometimes gives to him an earring made by a jinn, for she knows no human smith can match it.
Yet jinn could also bring about a person’s death by possessing them, a practice they are said to be fond of. They are of frightening and powerful appearance, and can be -- but are not always -- quite cunning. It is thought that just by mentioning them in conversation can cause them to be called into being, so after such a mention the name of God will be invoked: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate!” Though ghouls, afrits, marid and the like are all of the jinn’s ranks, often the jinn will not be put into one of these categorizations at all. The word itself is the origin of the English genie.
Gūla: Often anglicized as ghoul or, in the case of a female, ghoula or ghouleh, these are frightening and cunning creatures usually found in deserts or other open spaces. They have the ability to take any shape, but their most common guise is that of a man’s sister or aunt. Ghouls are above all characterized by their voracious appetites and desires, and are known to eat people and to hoard treasure. The human scent is acutely detectible to them. They are sometimes said to be unable to cross rivers. Often in folktales a ghoula will attempt to fool a man by claiming to be his kin, a guise which will not fool the man’s wife. Yet these men seldom listen to their wives, and, after she and his children have escaped to safety, he will be left alone with the ghoul who gives him the luxury of deciding which part of his body he will eat first. Ghouls are said to sometimes have the feet and legs of a donkey and the tail of a goat, and it is said that their feet make sparks when they walk. They are associated with flames and redness, and often have red eyes. Once killed, a ghoul can be revived with a second blow and may actually urge the hero to “strike again!” A common image of a ghoula is of her chasing a one-eyed rooster, possibly a metaphor for unbridled sexuality, as birds often represent the object of one’s love or desire in Arab folktales; and ghouls seem to have a taste for human wives, a tendency evidenced in a proverb: “The ghoul has devoured the whole world, except his wife.” Wood is sometimes an effective protection/disguise against ghouls.
However, ghouls may also serve as valuable friends and allies to a hero or heroine, if they are approached and placated in the correct way. When they are sighted, one must greet them, “Salaam!”, or “Peace be to you!”, to which hey will respond, “Had not your salaam come first, I would have gobbled you up and licked the flesh off your bones!” Sometimes in addition to politeness, a service such as cleaning up their messy dwellings, shaving their facial hair, or giving them the pleasures of civilization is necessary in order to gain the favor of a ghoul. For a ghoula, the way to secure their aid is to sneak up on them from behind, and, if they are grinding sugar (but never if they are grinding salt), to suck on their breasts which have been flung over their shoulders: for upon doing so, the ghoula will declare that the one who has done this is dearer to her than her own sons. In a friendly capacity, ghouls are renowned for their wisdom in supernatural matters, and also have the ability to carry or fly a person on their backs at dizzying speeds.
Qarīne: These are female demons that kill or harm children. They must always be guarded against, the best protection for which is the invocation of Allah or of the cross (not all Arabs are Muslim; a small but good-sized portion are Christian or Jewish).
Hyenas and monkeys: These are seen to be supernatural animals, with effects on humans similar to those of jinn. The same is true with monkeys. When monkeys (sa‘dān) are mentioned in conversation, the name of Allah is invoked, just as with jinn or other ghosts or spirits. Hyenas are thought not to attack their victims directly; rather, they will rub against them and urinate, and, by this smell and by the eerie sound of its wailing, entrances one and lures him or her into its lair.
Zeboshun: This is not the name of a kind of creature, but only the name of a specific one of them. Zeboshun was one of a kind of snake which is known to enter women’s bodies without their knowing it. They would lie hidden and dormant until the woman got married, and after a while its venom would enter her body and cause her to become a nag toward her husband. The only way to exorcise these snakes is to see their face and to call them by name, “Come out, Zeboshun!” There is one story where a prince wins a bride which has one of these snakes in it, but a dervish casts the snake out by frightening it into thinking that he wants to cut the woman’s body in half.
‘Afrīt: Also known as ‘afarīt, these demons or imps are the origin of the English word ifrit. They are known for stealing away women, or else for being a woman’s secret lover.
Marid: These giants, like ‘afrit, tend toward making off with women or being their illicit lovers. Sometimes a woman will willingly enter into a relationship with a marid, and, with the giant’s help, begins to scheme toward her son’s demise, for she knows that he will not tolerate a giant’s presence.
Naddāha: A water spirit that lures men to their deaths in ponds, wells and rivers.
Hūrriye: A beautiful nymph of the Islamic paradise. This term is sometimes used to describe women of unearthly beauty. Sometimes anglicized as houri.
It's been far too long since I have written a full-length review in this journal, and luckily I have just finished a novel which I can think carefully about. That being said, however, I am finding myself quite perplexed, unable to decide whether I ultimately liked the book in question or not. This being the first of Natsume Sōseki's works that I have read, I had high expectations when I took this slight tome from the bookshelf. I have heard and read a lot about Sōseki, and much of it is praise. It is with a bit of indecision and confusion that I regard Kusamakura, then. The book follows an artist of the Meiji period as he travels to a seaside hot-springs village in order to pursue art and artistic thoughts, meeting along the way its residents, chiefly among them the innkeeper's daughter Nami. According to the introduction, this book is a departure of sorts from Natsume Sōseki's usual style and subject. Though it, like his other works, show a mixing of Western and Japanese ideas and aesthetics, as well as a marked denial of modernity as a superior way to tradition.
The narrator is concerned more with the aesthetics of things than with things themselves, a principle which he equally applies to the people with which he interacts. Because of this lofty, removed outlook, he is unable -- or at least unwilling -- to interact with them in any sort of meaningful way, unable to have with them any sort of meaningful relationship. Despite this and despite his off-putting aversion to anything he deems vulgar (a word which appears quite too often in the narration, in my opinion, and annoyingly so), I couldn't help but continue to be interested in him and in his thoughtful, sometimes insightful observations. But from time to time, the narrator grew very tiresome in his self-congratulating expounding of his beliefs about art and his "nonemotional" approach to life, and I have to say that I disagreed with almost everything he said regarding vulgarity, emotion, and experiencing art. It is not only his opinions that I take issue with, but his way of thinking that any other view is unenlightened, uninformed. And every time I think he is drifting toward becoming more of a charming, sympathetic figure, he ruins the impression with more of his conceited high talk. Yet while off-putting, this quality of the narrator's is almost worth overlooking in order to get to the heart of the novel.
I can definitely see what Sōseki meant when he called Kusamakura (a word which means "grass pillow", a Japanese idiom for travel) a "haiku-style novel", for while haiku rely tremendously on imagery and an image's beauty or poignancy, their identity lies more with the emotion and mood they produce in the reader. It is this mood, this emotion of peaceful, idyllic solitude in a pastoral setting that forms the novel's most memorable quality and, arguably, its identity. Its thoughtful, restrained prose, while at times a bit pretentious and high-minded, serves mainly to complement and enhance this aura of leisurely contemplation. Unfortunately, these wonderful moments are all too few and, once over, seem to recede to the background.
Most of the narrator's encounters with Nami begin with an interruption of his abstract, aesthetic musings, and the tragedy is that rather than drawing him out into real human interaction, they usually only provide further fuel for his lofty, pompous thoughts. The one exception is when the two engage in a sort of verbal duel, he trying to defend his outlook and she slyly trying to unravel it. The ending of this exchange, in which he is startled and shocked by her knowledge of some of the specific things he has been thinking about lately, is one of the most amusing moments in the book. However, far more typical is the book's ending, when, having witnessed Nami's look of sorrow at the departure for a foreign war of her ex-husband, rather than feeling pity himself, or comforting her, the narrator can only respond: "That's it! That's what I need for my painting!"
All in all, this book is disappointing, but the worst part of it is that it didn't need to be so. The story itself might have been captivating and haunting, even the fact that the protagonist never really interacted with Nami in a meaningful way, were it not for the fact of the singularly self-important, conceited narrator. However, there were scattered islands of remarkable beauty within this story, and though I would not recommend Kusamakura to any but the most fervent devotees of Japanese literature, I am not yet giving up on Natsume Sōseki himself; on the contrary, I am only more intensely motivated to read more of his work, hoping that it can only be better than this.
So I haven't posted here in a long time; but here is a short update on my writing status. As said before, I've completed Yuki Hanashi (though I'm not sure which to use as a subtitle: "Tales of the Snow," or "Snow Stories") and am about three fourths through editing it. So that's good news. As for my next writing project, which is as of now unnamed, I'm currently in the midst of researching Arab folklore. This won't be as huge of an element as Japanese folklore was in Yuki Hanashi; rather, it'll be more of a subtle flavoring for the story, if you will.
I'm two books into researching the subject, so far. My first read was Charles Campbell's Tales of the Arab Tribes, a book of folktales from different Iraqi tribes collected around World War II. I'm now into Dwight Reynolds' Arab Folklore: A Handbook. It's by far the more detailed and complete of the two, and gives insight into Arab conduct, history, and literature as well as poetry and folktales and other such things. One of the most interesting things is that poetry is the dominant form of Arab literature, and that rhyming poetry was an Arab innovation. Both men and women are expected to comport themselves with pride and stoicism, acting as the camel who bears his burdens and misfortunes without complaint and gets on with its life. But in poetry emotions like sadness, desire, regret, and disappointment can be expressed: not because poetry is thought of as an artsy, wishy-washy medium as it is in Western culture, but rather for the exact opposite reason; because poetry in Arab culture is composed according to strict meter and rhyme, it is thought that through expression of one's emotions in poetry one is mastering those emotions, that one is showing his or her ability to exert control over them.
But what I really wanted to mention in this post was the history of the creation of The Thousand Nights and a Night, often known as The Arabian Nights.
It seems that a certain Frenchman named Antoine Galland spent many years in Istanbul, employed as a book dealer, where he came upon a tome called The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. Upon returning to France and becoming a professor of the Arab language, he translated the book, which was received extremely well in France, because at that time fairy tales were all the rage in French society. This was around the same time when Charles Perrault had published his fairy tale books. Because of the success of the Sinbad book in France, Galland claimed that he had discovered that the tales were part of a larger collection, which he had never yet come upon. (Which is itself a curious claim -- as Reynolds says in the folklore book, "How did Galland become aware of the Nights while living in France after never having heard of it during his 15 years living in Turkey and traveling through the Arab countries?" Also, while the Nights had existed in Arab literature -- as an extremely obscure Arabic translation of a Persian book called "The Thousand Stories", which itself was a translation of tales from India -- the Sinbad stories had never, in an Arab context, been associated with it. It seems that Galland was trying to stretch the truth here, in order to achieve further success in publication. Subsequently, he published another volume in 1709 which he claimed were also part of the Nights, which, though some have been traced to specific sources, scholars agree that a number of them were created by Galland himself. These tales include what we in the West most stereotypically think of as elements of Arab folklore: flying carpets, magic lamps and rings, and the famous phrase, "Open sesame!" In fact, the stories that these elements come from, "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" were probably written by Galland himself, or at very best retold and embellished by him from short stories told to him by a traveling Syrian monk. After this, many other European writers began making their own versions of the Arabian Nights, who made not even the merest pretense at having adapted their stories from Arab originals. So in conclusion, the idea that the Nights stem from a single Arabic manuscript is completely false, and the idea that they are a work of either Arab culture or Arab folklore is also completely, utterly false. They should be considered, rather, a work of world literature, as they are the result of European, Arab, Persian and Indian creativity compounded one upon the others. Though, of course, Reynolds makes the argument (and I agree) that the Nights is a quality work of literature that deserves study and attention; it's just that it should be recognized for what it is. It is no more a work of Arab folklore or culture than Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books are a work of Indian folklore or culture.
I should mention that Reynolds feels that there is one somewhat accurate source to which one can turn in order to read the original tales of the Nights without any of Galland's embellishments or additions, and this is the 1990 translation done by Husain Haddawy. This translation was taken directly from the 14th century Arabic manuscript edited by Madhi, which is the translation of the Persian-Indian collection.
So after finishing Yuki Hanashi in early December, I took a bit of a break to relax, watch some tv, do some reading that's actually for pleasure rather than research, read some books that I've been wanting to read but have been holding off on because of worries that they might get my mind too far off the themes and the world of my book.
I've also started to write my next story, which has been simmering at the back of my mind for at least a year, maybe two (can't remember exactly how long it was since I first thought of the idea...). All I've written is half a prologue, but it's a start, and I'm also beginning to research Arabic folklore, which plays a very, very small but -- I think -- interesting role in this next story.
But what I'm also doing right now that is giving me a little bit of a headache is going over the first book and editing it. So far, so good. Sure, there is a place in part two that I think slows the story down too much, but I'm pretty sure I know how to fix that. But coming into part three, I'm dealing with a much more problematic place in the narrative that I don't think will be as easy to resolve.
Without giving away anything of the plot: part two ends in a cliffhanger, and part three begins a couple weeks later. After about a page of setting up a crucial scene for part three, it breaks off again and flashes back to reveal how the main character got to the place she is now. So far so good. But during this flashback, which itself I am pretty satisfied, there is some information about a character who becomes more significant here, that I'm not really pleased with. Basically, the problem is that I've somehow spread this information out too thinly, or to be more accurate, put different pieces of it in too many different places. Reading over it now, I think that it should either be all in one place, or if not at least closer together. But that will be hard to do without some major work on this flashback. I've even tried making a list of every paragraph in this section and their main points, to try to boil it down more so I can see more easily how things might be moved. But this doesn't help. The primary problem with this approach is that when I go back and look at things out of context, everything seems fine. I can't think of how to change things because looking at the text one paragraph at a time, there aren't any problems. It's just when one reads the section as a whole when the problems become apparent.
What I really need the most is for someone completely new to this story to read it and tell me where the problems are, if there are any and it's not just my over-critical imagination, and how they might be fixed. My good friend Matt is in the process of doing this right now, actually, so I really just need to be more patient. I trust his opinions on literary matters, so if anyone can help me with this, Matt can.
Matt himself is working on a novel set in the world of Russian folklore, which I can already tell just by hearing him talk about it is going to far surpass my own book. I've only read a little bit of his writing for this story, but I think the themes and approaches he's chosen are better than mine. But then, I can't really go into the weaknesses of my story without spoiling too many pain plot points.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm dissatisfied with my book and how it's come out. Reading through it -- while it has been a tedious process because I've read these passages time after time after time throughout the process of writing -- has only made me more excited about eventually trying to get it published. I'm really happy with how it turned out, and I consider it a success. My worries are mainly philosophical ones, which most people probably won't even notice. It's very likely that I'm narcissistically picking apart everything that remotely resembles a flaw, out of some self-centered perfectionist obsession. But then again, I'll be the first to acknowledge my flaws. I don't know. I think I've stopped making sense, so I'll shut up now.
With so many presidential candidates out there and so little time to research their views and to compare and contrast them, I found this quiz to be a helpful tool to find out which candidate I agree with the most.
Just answer a few short questions on how you view certain issues and it will give you a list of all the candidates and which ones you agree with most, as well as which issues you disagree with them on.
In case you're wondering, I came up with Dennis Kucinich as the candidate I agree with most, and John McCain as the candidate I disagree with most.
Here is another quiz that has more issues:
Also came up with Kucinich for this one, too. Interesting, as I've never really given him much thought before. I'll have to look into him some more.
I recently had an opportunity to read Ruth Porter's The Simple Life, a novel I'd spotted on the shelves at the bookstore a few months ago. It looked pretty interesting, and my fascination was piqued even more by the stark black and white photography that accompanies each chapter. I've just moments ago finished reading it. I'm not entirely sure at this point what to make of it, and so I am hoping that through writing out my thoughts I can better make sense of the book.
One thing that is readily apparent is that Ruth Porter understands the rustic beauty of small towns; it is not the same thing as the beauty of nostalgia that seems to pervade most of these types of stories, especially those that take place in the South (perhaps The Simple Life's setting in Vermont has something to do with this).
Porter doesn't shy away from depicting the poverty present in rural life; she does not romanticize "the country", although her protagonist does. The prose in this novel is plain and straightforward, with a hinting of small town expression. It is appropriate and feels real, with none of the contrived quaintness that Isabel Rawlings, the novel's protagonist, seems to imagine overlays the Severance, Vermont area. Though Isabel's is the dominant voice, Porter seems to be quietly contradicting her in this way. The evocation of Severance, in both Porter's prose and her photography, lingers on the rundown, the faulty, the aging, the faded beauty of deterioration and undisguised age, which rings true within my experiences of growing up in and around small towns in Ohio. (The novel is set in Vermont, of course, and not Ohio; yet I find this an appropriate observation as Ruth Porter herself grew up in Ohio.)
In hindsight, this sense of deterioration is prophetic, as the novel is ultimately a tragedy, a lament not only for the personal loss that has befallen its characters but also the loss of a plainer, more essential -- yet not at all more simple -- way of life.
I want to make sure that I am not misunderstood in this distinction. Too readily it seems as if I am contradicting myself, and that is something I want to avoid. What I am trying to say here -- the difference I'm trying to point out is between a more sober view of rural life as hard and full of complexity but ultimately wholesome and satisfying, and Isabel's romanticized views of rural life as a simple and without complication. In other words, rural life should be seen as a way of life in its own right, with all the treacheries and complexities -- and, yes, joys and satisfactions -- that come with any sort of life, and not as an escape from life. I believe that this is an important distinction and it is one that I also believe the author is here trying to point out.
If I had to point to any major flaw in this book (and this is not even a flaw in and of itself, not necessarily) it is that only a few characters in this book are really likeable. Isabel herself is for the most part sympathetic, though I often found myself annoyed with her superficially naive understandings of what was happening around her. In this respect, I could sympathize with the exasperation of Leroy (Isabel's slick and self-interested lover), though Leroy himself is arguably the least likeable character in the book. Perhaps this is realistic, however; and appropriate, for this book is not necessarily about a character or characters coming to new realizations after tragedy, but could be said to center more around the great cost at which such realizations are bought.
Thought it seems strange to say of a novel centering around a newly-divorced mother of two who has left all shards of her previous life behind, in many ways this seems like a "coming of age" story. That is a term which I don't like to use, for it seems to me an overly simplistic way of describing something that in every case is unique and is in any case too complex for such easy, convenient labels. But it's something that I believe is applicable in this case. While Isabel is a middle-aged woman, her state of mind shifts from the wide-eyed naiveté of a tourist to a somewhat wiser and more thoughtful consideration of things, but at the cost of a tragedy that ultimately scars most of the characters in the book. Though one doesn't get the sense that she has completely left her "hippie" ideas behind, it is certain that Isabel now knows that no kind of life, even the country life she has long idealized, is simple.
The Science of Sleep has been, to me, like an old friend that one knows he should call and catch up with, but for whatever reason can not find the time for, only to have that friend bump into him on the street. Various friends and co-workers of mine have been recommending this film to me, and I have seen and read good things about it everywhere. I always tucked it into the back of my mind, meaning to see it at some point. Tonight, the film showed up in my apartment on loan, not from any of the friends who recommended it to me, but from one of my wife's coworkers.
It is not very often that one sees films like this. I'm not talking about the sheer amount of unconventional imagination that this film contains, nor am I referring to the off-kilter, art house slash foreign slash indie feel that pervades The Science of Sleep. Instead, I mean the brutal honesty that characterizes the story's portrayal of Stephane, the male protagonist. Rather than romanticizing him through his dreams as a tragic, misunderstood visionary, the film uses Stephane's dreams to highlight the fact that he is an extremely damaged and fragile person. Yet still, there is something about the unreserved honesty of his dreams that seems like it is characteristic of what really goes on in people's minds. In his dreams, Stephane doesn't have to worry about being seen as self-centered: for he really is the center of his own universe, as many people imagine themselves to be in the real world.
After watching the movie, I picked up the DVD case and read the description on the back, a habit that I have, for some reason, after watching most films. What surprised me here was how glaringly inaccurate the description was. It made it seem as if the movie was about the way that dreams and imagination can add a whole new layer to the world, can make our lives richer and more exciting and can make us visionaries. This is actually quite the opposite of what seems to me to be The Science of Sleep's main idea: that sometimes dreams can so completely and utterly alienate us from reality that we can no longer function in the real world. Because Stephane is so lost in his dreams, he cannot tell what is real and what is his imagination, and he ends up not only hurting himself but also the woman that he loves, Stephanie, who also happens to be his neighbor. Stephane's dreams allow him a release for all of his fantasies, a way for him to explore the limitless potential of his relationship with Stephanie; yes, this is true. But just as they give form in his mind to all the wonderful things that could happen between them, so also do they exaggerate the possibilities for tragedy and inflame his anxiety and his fear of rejection.
What's also interesting, and what further seems to underline the danger of getting lost in dreams, is that Stephane does not only dream during the nighttime. His private world often infringes upon the waking world, intruding into situations like a casual conversation or a stroll down the street with a coworker.
In the end, however, the viewer is left to draw his own conclusion as to what ultimately happens in the story of Stephane and Stephanie. The film ends on a somewhat positive note that hints at possible reconciliation between the two: but it also ends in a dream, which can be interpreted as a sign that despite all that he has been through Stephane is still not willing to live entirely in the real world, that he is still relying on his fantasies for satisfaction rather than making a real effort toward happiness in the real world. Of course, this scene could also be interpreted as a symbolic expression of the couple's future romantic happiness. Again, it is left to the viewer to interpret.
One of the things which I personally love the most about The Science of Sleep, in addition to its wildly creative yet surprisingly transparent and genuine dream sequences and its equally realistic and deeply flawed characters, is that the story neither outright endorses living with one's head in the clouds, nor condemns it as an unhealthy and impractical vice. Instead, it fully explores the emotional highs and pitfalls that are possible to experience through dreaming. Dreams and imagination, like any human experience, have the power to both hurt and heal, to the extent that one is willing to indulge and nurture them, to let them influence what one thinks and how one sees the world.
The Science of Sleep is a wonderful movie. It is original and humorous, it is tragic and genuine, it is lighthearted and thought provoking. It is also a rare glimpse of reality and humanity in the sea of mostly flashy, superficial and forgettable material that is the current state of the film industry.
Oh, and I almost forgot to ask: what was Zoë's phone number, anyway?
I have always personally disagreed with that little nugget of supposed wisdom, that "there is no such thing as an original story", and that it is impossible for a writer to create something new and unique. To me, that is ridiculous. It is nothing more than an excuse for a lack of originality. A corollary of this theory is that every story imaginable can fit neatly into a specific formula that has been around since mankind first began telling stories. It becomes clear upon examining these supposed all-encompassing formulas that this is not true. Or, it is technically true, but exaggerated in such a way as to be completely meaningless. These formulas are things like Man vs. nature or Man vs. man or Man vs. machine, etc. Obviously these "formulas" are nothing but the barest, most essential and nondescript labels possible, and even if there are more complicated formulas it is remarkably easy for a writer to circumvent them. A great example of this is Haruki Murakami. I know that I am always harping on about him, but it is for a good reason. Murakami's stories for the most part lack a traditional plot structure, and so are open for all kinds of possibilities. But this is not the point of this review.
In classical Japanese literature, such as Ueda Akinari's Ugetsu monogatari ("Tales of Moonlight and Rain" -- and though this works well as an example there is a larger reason I mention this work), and in a more generic way in all of Japanese culture, allusion and borrowing play a large role. However, this is very different from unoriginality. There is a large and significant difference between plagiarism and being influenced by another work of art. In fact, if one desires a neat and convenient platitude, then It is impossible for an artist to create a work of art without being influenced by someone or something is infinitely better than It is impossible to create a truly new story. But there is nothing wrong with being influenced or making allusion or creating a tribute to a great work of art. What there is something wrong with is outright plagiarism.
When I first encountered Ray Manzarek's Snake Moon, it was not the story itself or the fact that Manzarek was the keyboardist for the Doors that piqued my interest; but rather something much more superficial. It was the fact that the cover art was drawn by one of my favorite comics artists, Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy, a series rich in references, allusions, and tributes to folklore, mythology, Victorian literature, and pulp storytelling. But when I discovered that the story was a ghost story set in the days of the Civil War, I was positively hooked. I had to read this book. It contained many things that I love, or so it had seemed: ghosts, historical fiction, and to top it off, a gorgeous cover. And so I special ordered a copy of the book, purchased it, and for a long time it sat on my shelf neglected, until about a week ago when I finally picked it up and began reading it.
What immediately struck me about this book is that the writing was... well, quite simply horrible. It was amateurish through and through. I won't claim to be the best writer, but I hope that I have achieved better than Manzarek here has. At any rate, I have done enough reading to know bad writing when I see it. And it’s not just the writing style itself that is the problem. In fact, there are several groan-inducing, hand-slap-to-the-forehead style issues with this book.
First of all, it strikes me that little to no research was actually done on the Civil War era America and the lives of its people. The use of a stereotypical, highly generic accent and dialect that could be categorized "hick" as much as "Southern" is the first clue that something is amiss with this book. Not only is it insulting to Southerners everywhere, it is also ironic that it is these very Southerners and their culture that Manzarek is trying to glorify with his story. No matter the case, the characters' speech rings utterly false and after a while just hurts the brain to read. As if this weren't enough, the book, in both its narrative voice and the voices of its characters, expresses numerous and widespread modern ideas on topics like politics, human rights, social issues and sexuality. At this point whatever meager illusion of reality is exists is stretched thin almost to the bone. This is especially true when one considers the fact that the characters in question are farmers, living in a Tennessee hollow so remote that not only does no one else in the story know where to find it, but also that its residents (another extremely unlikely conceit) are not even aware that a war is being fought and has been for the past two years or so!
The real clincher is the rampant and falsely didactic mishmash of New Age beliefs and barebones Christianity that not only turn the stomach because of their shallowness, but also would never be found on the lips of historical Tennessee farmers. What's even more confusing is that after waxing poetic (or trying to) on how God is the same as the sun, and the sunlight is God and His power, and that everything contains a bit of God in it, the protagonist later on claims that God is inscrutable and incomprehensible and so therefore must not exist at all. Huh? How does a realistic character transition from such an exuberantly and innocently staunch believer -- albeit a believer in some system of faiths that doesn't exist and in many ways contradicts itself -- to a morose and doubtful atheist, and then back again? Sure, it's plausible, but not in the context of what has so far happened. The character has endured lots of harrowing and distressing events, but at each step of the way none of his beliefs seem to be in doubt until this one specific moment. Even more confusingly, after this isolated scene, the man seems to be an untroubled believer again.
I cannot stand New Age ideas myself, because the New Age movement is by definition a blending of the rosier and more attractive ideas cherry-picked from multiple religions and philosophies, while the more obscure and unpleasant ideas are rejected and left behind. And what New Age philosophy actually does take from these sources, it doesn't even fully seek to understand, but takes these ideas at their most simplistic and shallow face value. But totally disregarding my dislike for such things, it's completely inaccurate and unbelievable for farmers in the mountains of Tennessee in the period of the American Civil War to have these ideas in the first place. It's almost as if Manzarek thinks people of this time and place thought and behaved the same as the average modern American, as filtered through popular television and Hollywood aesthetics, only with an annoyingly clichéd accent tacked on.
But all this so far only grazes the surface of the most incredibly bizarre and wrong thing about Snake Moon. I hinted heavily toward this in the opening paragraphs of this review: that Ray Manzarek of the Doors basically lifted wholesale the plot of his excursion into fictional literature from another source. That source, specifically, would be Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film Ugetsu monogatari, more often known simply as Ugetsu, a stirring and hauntingly beautiful critique of the senselessness of war and unbridled ambition.
Like I said, being influenced by another artist or work of art is inevitable. Allusion to other works is also not only acceptable but in many cases is considered a praiseworthy tool. Even a tribute to another work, or to take things further, an adaptation of one in a new form, are things that are perfectly acceptable. But in the latter two cases, in which more than just a few ideas or concepts are taken from the original, it is acknowledged that this is so and the original sources are identified. Not so in Snake Moon; in fact, Manzarek's friend and fellow screenwriter Rick Valentine's afterward to the book suggests heavily that he and Manzarek spent many agonizing sessions crafting the twists and turns of their project. In other words, not only is it not stated that Snake Moon is an adaptation of Ugetsu, it is heavily suggested that the work is a completely original tale and a labor of love. In other words, it is "[using] and [passing] off the ideas or writings of another as one's own"*, or "[taking] without referencing from someone else’s…intellectual property"**. In other words, plagiarism.
If for some reason any reader of this review is still inclined to read Snake Moon (or, if, for a much better reason, you plan on seeing the film Ugetsu), you might want to quit reading now, for detailed spoilers are under the cut.
( In both the film Ugetsu and the book Snake Moon, the plot can be outlined as such...Collapse )
The sheer detail of the plot summary given above, which applies to both Ugetsu and Snake Moon, will make it abundantly clear that this is no mere tribute or allusion or borrowing of ideas. Every significant plot point and character are duplicated in Manzarek's book, and he bothers to change little. In fact, the biggest change Manzarek affected, that of the book's setting in the Civil War, is upon closer thought not really all that big of a change at all. The story, with its inherent criticism and condemnation of the violence of war and its senseless, unavoidable consequences, relies not only on a backdrop of war but also on a war in which both sides are roughly homogenous. This is because the similarities between the soldiers on each side of such a war serve to underline the futility of the war: it serves to ask us, "Why are we fighting our brethren and neighbors?" In that light, it's clear to me that the shifting of the story's setting from Japan's Sengoku jidai ("Warring States period") to America's Civil War is not that big of a change at all, merely a shifting of physical setting and cultural experience.
All of this would be perfectly fine, if not for one simple and immense problem: Manzarek does not say that his work is an adaptation of Ugetsu, and, as said previously, deliberately hints without saying it outright that the opposite is true. Did he not care? Or did he think simply that no one who would end up reading his book would ever have seen such an obscure movie? I have no idea. But given the extreme lack of variation from one work to another, it's unlikely that he wrote Snake Moon without realizing that he was copying Ugetsu's plot.
* The American Heritage Dictionary
** Princeton University's WordNet