Posts Tagged ‘ Literary Theory ’

Heidegger, Dialectic, & Simba

The Lion King is known for being one of the greatest Disney films of all time. Until last night it had been quite a while since I’ve watched it — and this time I couldn’t help going through some analysis. So as not to ramble, I’ll begin by laying out the basic dialectical structure of the story.

Thesis = Mufasa. The start of Simba’s life is the start of his philosophical growth. In all honesty, there is not a lot we see of Mufasa. He tells Simba about the social structures of their kingdom, he gives a hunting lesson, and he dies. However, in this short time Mufasa makes himself out to be the most Heideggerian character in the movie. Yes, I am allowing the assumption that an anthropomorphic entity can be Dasein given the context of fiction. His whole “Circle of Life” spiel is essentially a leonine articulation of Bewandtnis (which Macquarrie & Robinson translate as “involvement”). Bewandtnis or Bewenden more crucially refer to the fact that the world is turning or that it is bent. All that equipment (for lions: gazelle, grass, weather, etc.) is tangled together. The understood state-of-mind (Befindlichkeit) Mufasa articulates is one of responsibility — the world matters to him. He has concern for it and solicitude for Others. We may also note that Mufasa ignores Zazu when he begins recounting gossip (idle-talk, a clear sign of the they-world). We will return to Mufasa later.

Antithesis = Timon and Pumbaa, the hippies. My sense of Hakuna Matata is a total immersion into the they-world. All is given over to ambiguity. The past is behind you, you merely flit from one grub to the next. Indeed, Timon and Pumbaa’s strong emphasis on eating (which almost gets Pumbaa killed) is a brilliant depiction of lust for the new. Simba learns from them how not to worry about anything. Maybe the lack of red meat in his diet is what causes his voice to be higher-pitched than all of the females in the film.

Synthesis = Rafiki. This half-senile, poo-flinging wizard effectively combines Timon and Pumbaa’s willful covering of the past with Mufasa’s Circle of Life business. Basically, the moral is “The past can hurt… but you can either hide from it or learn from it!” I’m pretty sure Mufasa would not disagree. Actually, I get the sense that Mufasa and Rafiki may not be in total philosophical agreement. When King Hamlet’s ghost… I mean, when Mufasa’s ghost appears to Simba, he tells his son to remember who he is as an individual. I would argue that the conversation between Simba and his ghost-dad represents a call of conscience in the Heideggerian sense. The content of the call is nothing, and it merely comes from Simba to Simba. It is a call from his Self to his Self — it goes over the they-self. Indeed, it pulls him out of the they. Timon and Pumbaa lament that their friend is “doomed” and they are very correct. The call of conscience reveals to us how we have been thrown into the world and the possibility of our Being as Being-towards-death. Because Simba realizes that he has the possibility of having no more possibilities as a Being in-the-world, he is confronted with the question of “What really matters?”

The synthesis, I would argue, is not necessarily what Simba takes. Rafiki’s emphasis on learning from the past doesn’t really have any further importance in the movie. Probably this is because Rafiki has crucially misunderstood what learning is… but that may be another story. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Rafiki. The philosophical construct of “Asante sana, squash banana, wewe nugu, mimi hapana” is dazzling.

The following clip should exemplify some of the things I’ve been babbling about:

(My issue with Rafiki and learning is that he says, “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past!” but then expects you to learn from something that doesn’t matter.)

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Another approach to “Dune”

I really like Dune. So, I thought I would look specifically at the novel through a Heideggerian lens. This will be shorter than my first analysis of it.

Before I do that, I want to look at some things in terms of Nietzsche. I suspect that Nietzsche would despise the Bene Gesserit. Their goal seems to be to genetically create an Uebermensch, yet they de-emphasize fear. Indeed, they reassert the idea of fear as bad in the novel’s (most famous) line: “Fear is the mind killer” (8). On the other hand, Muad’Dib’s betrayal of the Bene Gesserit would please ol’ Friedrich. Indeed, the following statement could just as well have come from Thus Spake Zarathustra: “And always, he fought the temptations to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation'” (218).

So what of Heidegger? He too, I would argue, would not express much pleasure with the Bene Gesserit. One of their proverbs reads:

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.” (69)

I would argue that Heidegger would be disappointed with this proverb because it assumes a merely knowledge-based conception of the world. Being at the top of a mountain may prevent you from seeing the mountain in a purely visual sense. Therefore, you would not know how the mountain appears, but such an ontology is not our complete experience. Rather, we first come to understand the mountain. It is equipment of Nature — an environment. Indeed, the mountain may even be such a ready-to-hand that it appears as the woraufhin: the scene on which things appear, the scene that remains distinct from those things or any-thing. Such a view of the mountain would no longer even allow it to be equipmental. Instead, the mountain as woraufhin would be a world.

My central argument about Dune from a Heideggerian perspective is that place is more important that Herbert suggests. Herbert likes to focus on things like religion and militancy and economics — yet the language he uses betrays a different trope. It seems unintentional, but it permeates the novel.  As I have explained, it is the idea of place, environment, and world that Heidegger would particularly notice; these are ideas with which Herbert spends little time, but they account for much of the representation of humanity.

We need look no farther than the function of the Kwisatz Haderach — whom we come to discover is Paul, Muad’Dib. The Reverend Mother states, “Yet, there’s a place where no Truthsayer can see. We are repelled by it, terrorized. It is said a man will come one day and find in the gift of the drug his inward eye. He will look where we cannot — into both feminine and masculine pasts” (13). Two brilliant things become clear. One, the Reverend Mother again announces the Bene Gesserit obsession with thought only; the Kwisatz Haderach is meant merely to look. Secondly, we see quite overtly that the pasts of men and women, the multitudes, are measured by place. This connection between time and space magnifies and gives meaning to the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach. Late in the book we see Muad’Dib grapple with the numerous possibilities — many of which even he cannot see. It is only because the world bends in a certain direction (involvement) that allows any possibility whatsoever. Because of the involvement of time and space, the bent world opens, always, the possibility of being aware of our being (as Dasein).

See, I made this one shorter.

One approach to “Dune”

It’s been a while since I read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune, so I decided to reread it last week. What struck me was how colonial/postcolonial the novel is. It really reminded me of Heart of Darkness in its ambiguities. Actually, both novels hold light and darkness as significant. I think examples from Heart of Darkness can go without saying, but Dune includes such gems as:

“To attempt an understanding of Muad’Dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.” (13)

Indeed, the basic structure of the Kwisatz Haderach is that of one who can look into the darkness:

“She focused on the psychokinesthetic extension of herself, looking within, and was confronted immediately with a cellular core, a pit of blackness from which she recoiled. That is the place where we cannot look, she thought.” (354)

We are even told of the possibility of becoming like Kurtz:

“His own eyes, he knew, had a touch of the color, but smugglers could get offworld food and there was a subtle caste implication in the tone of the eyes among them. They spoke of ‘the touch of the spicebrush’ to mean a man had gone too native. And there was always a hint of distrust in the idea.” (415)

Now, such similarities are all well and good, but one might ask, “So what?”

First of all, Dune is not the same as Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s novel allows one character to present his story, while Herbert allows many characters a passing chance to take a hand in the narration. The other issue at hand is in regards to genre. Dune is distinctly sci-fi; Conrad’s novel, not so much. These differences create several divisions — I shall highlight three here:

1) Herbert’s novel appears as a story, Conrad’s as an incident. This is an important distinction because of each author’s writing style. Both use language kind of weirdly. Conrad is boggling, this much is typically agreed. Herbert, in my opinion, shifts (often jarringly) between a journalistic tone and a transcendental/spiritual tone. In short, the two share a similarity that makes their novels strange to read. I argue that Herbert is less cunning in his use of analogies and allegories than Conrad. Herbert’s jarring writing actually makes us pay closer attention, while Conrad’s creepiness just confuses the heck out of us. As a side note, my favorite description in Heart of Darkness refers to the technology monitoring the steamboat, the technology an African is responsible for paying attention to. I love it because it links Western technology to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet it is phrased so oddly that it is almost impossible to slog through it properly. Conrad writes:

“He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.” (37 [Norton Critical edition 2006])

2) Herbert revels in explaining, Conrad doesn’t give a damn. The journalistic tone Herbert parades is no anomaly. It is typical sci-fi. When you’re exposing readers to a world that isn’t the world in which your readers live, it is kind of important that they come to understand it. Journalistic methods involve explaining stuff briefly (which does not always happen in sci-fi, much to the dismay of our brains) and giving something with which we might feel at home on, say, Arrakis. It seems to me that Conrad is not at all concerned with science fictional truthiness. My view of Heart of Darkness is that the book presents the river — and all Africa — as a mythical otherworld/other-world. In other words, the Africa of Heart of Darkness is myth and mystery, the Arrakis of Dune is technological myth. Marlow approaches the Congo with little scientific bearing. Rather, he approaches as an explorer; it is the Unknown. Arrakis is likewise unknown, but it is an unknown to be prodded by the sciences of the Guild, the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit, the Empire, etc… Arrakis is an object to be obtained, though it does retain some mythos. We are told that “Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his [Muad’Dib’s] place” (3) even though he was born and raised on Caladan.

3) Herbert wants to avoid “going native,” Conrad doesn’t seem as sure. Paul certainly “goes native” — his name shifts to Usul, then to Muad’Dib. He comes to effectively rule the Fremen through a quasi-religion. However, he is not totally “native.” He spends a huge chunk of the novel trying to avoid the “jihad” he perceives the future may hold. He intentionally shifts the way Fremen society and religion work — indeed he shifts the science of the Bene Gesserit as well — to avoid “going native,” engaging in the religious crusade the Fremen seem to desire. Conrad, primarily because of his totally confusing (and awesome) use of language, questions the location of the heart of darkness. I think it can be argued that he shows how none of us are quite innocent; evil lurks, crouching in every heart, within humanity. Muad’Dib’s concern with preventing evil is certainly good, but I believe Herbert grants too much credit to Puritan concept that only the chosen few are okay as humans (Hell, the Bene Gesserit test people to decide if they are “human” or “animal”).

I really like both novels, as you might be able to see by the length of this post…

Good as Gold

I finished Joseph Heller’s book, Good as Gold, last week. Because the book is old and Heller hasn’t written anything for a few years (which will happen when you’re dead), I don’t want to review the book. I will however do two things:

1) I highly recommend this book. The humor is excellent — bleak, but excellent. The joke about Chaim Potok is worth reading the book.

2) A few comments can be made about Heller’s attacks on contemporary culture. Yes, contemporary even though the book is from the 70’s. Again and again Heller shows the absurdity of the mass consumption ideology. More education = more smartness, more smartness = more money, more money = more happiness. We can think of this in the terms Ivan Illich assigns: we are caught up, thinking that “escalation leads to success.” Heller effectively shows that more, while always more, is not essentially better.  The main character, Bruce Gold (a college professor), rages constantly at his family for their stupidity. We see nothing but hatred for them from him, yet he is unable to cast them from his life. Indeed, the closer Gold gets to a government appointment, the more tightly he finds himself bound to his family. He cheats on his wife with several women, but, in every case, he cannot help but to weigh his mistresses against his domestic obligations.

Thus, we get an overall effect that it classic Heller. The things that are really valuable are not the things that the bulk of society tells us are valuable. Military action, government involvement, and money all splinter in comparison to something(s) else.

The Glass Palace

I recently finished Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Glass Palace, for my class on Postcolonial Literature. So, I decided to write some babblings on that today. What really becomes apparent is how the problems of colonialism are not capable of being whisked away by some Solution. Ghosh shows several different approaches to “fighting” the colonial power; notably economics, military force, and art.

I think the commentary Ghosh makes on economics is quite interesting. The books central character, Rajkumar, spends much of the book figuring out how to make money within imperial-controlled Burma and India. He begins with teak — the wood that ushered in a war — but moves to rubber once he discovers there is money to be made there. One must note that, in the rubber business, Rajkumar is effectively a slave-owner. Of course, WWII destroys Rajkumar’s business and he lives the remainder of his life as a poor man. I think here we could argue that the imperial-capitalist economic system is incapable of offering any good living to those who cannot — for whatever reason — engage in high risk investments. However, this is probably farther than Ghosh’s novel would reasonably take us.

There is an irony, I’m not sure if it’s intentional, within Ghosh’s presentation of military force. Near the beginning of the novel, Burma’s city of Mandalay is attacked by the British. The British are not aiming for destruction — they strike a swift victory by kidnapping the royal family. But there is one other swift victory found in the fighting that takes place in The Glass Palace (and there is a lot).  This short victory wasn’t actually short, but in the novel its presentation certainly is — the reversal General Aung San pulls on the Japanese. I think, to find a unity between these two, we must again consider that the problems of colonialism do not have easy solutions. Whether it is the British trying to gain authority in Burma or the Burmese trying to excercise their own authority, there is a tendency for peace to vanish. War and violence seem to rise before us at every turn.

In art, Ghosh gives us his best solution. One of his characters, Dinu, is a photographer. At one point in the novel he is married to a writer — a writer of political opposition to the dictatorship of Burma. After her death, Dinu allows his photography shop to be used as a meeting spot for locals to talk about… photos. But, there’s a catch! As Dinu tells his niece, “… photography too is a secret language” (p 438). So yeah, basically Ghosh’s conclusion is that, in order to fight ruthlessly violent power-seekers, we must be intelligent.

A Glorious Autotune

Please, watch the following music video:

I really cannot offer any critique, save for one thing. This is what autotune was designed for. Autotune has received huge amounts of bashing, much of it probably well-deserved. I would argue that it is through music like this that autotune has remarkable potential. Granting song  to non-singing types, particularly innerlekshul types, is something beautiful indeed.

But, for a moment, let us consider a Heideggerian analysis of autotune. In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger shows that the supreme danger of all technology is that humans presume their mastery. The danger he sees is that we ignore the effects technology has on us, that we merely see technology as something we have created. Heidegger’s analysis applies to the discussion of autotune in two ways. For one, autotune is a technological innovation. Secondly, the Arts are technology. This second point is where it is helpful to have a literary perspective: one of the greatest achievements in literary theory is the consideration of ideology. Although I do become suspicious when so many aspects of literary theory are dependant upon Freud, Marx, Derrida, and Foucault…

So what of Heidegger? My favorite line in the song is, “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will, one day, venture to the stars.” Heidegger, I believe, would particularly enjoy the first sentence. The sky calls to us — we do not call to the sky. This is classic Heidegger. He uses the word “poiesis” (“bringing forth”)to describe all change, all action, all creation. Specifically, he uses the word “phusis” (related to “physics”) to describe the poiesis of nature. Nature is indeed poetic (N.B. the common root!); the sky does call to us. Heidegger would also like the second quoted sentence. It puts the responsibility on us. We must answer the call of the sky. Human poiesis (i.e. techne) is thereby the response to that call — and it is absolutely a response for which we are responsible.

Heidegger, I would argue, treads the treacherous division between existentialism and essentialism. Given his Nazi involvement, his philosophy is likely to be quite dangerous. But, as he writes, the supreme danger contains the saving power; it is important to tread carefully through Heidegger’s thoughts. Technology (as science or art) as huge potential for disaster (for instance, Twilight), but a still more glorious dawn awaits.

I almost blogged on this article instead. Silly Canadians…

Post-Lussinatt Blog Post

I hope the world had a lovely Lussinatt!

Currently, I am busy writing an essay about how elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy hide a deeper narrative of Marxist though in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In other words, I’m writing this post to slack off. Rather than detail my paper, I think I’ll stick to something more amusing, if that’s possible. My subject shall be: Stuff White People Like.

First off, the Stuff White People Like blog is brilliant. Apparently it has been around for quite a while, but I only recently discovered it. Kudos to he who suggested I go there! The brilliance of the blog is that it is not about white people at all. What is it about? I think here we should consider one of Slavoj Zizek’s favourite sayings. Stuff White People Like is about “postmodern, multi-cultural, liberal capitalism.” Not only is it about this group, the dominating force of (post)modern culture, it makes fun of this group.

Keeping in the mode of Zizek, it is fair to say that the blog exposes many of the ideological idiosyncracies of po-mo, mu-cu, lib cappies. One of the best posts on the blog is #62 Knowing what’s best for poor people. The statement is, in itself, entirely true. The (post)modern left loves to know what’s best for poor people. Especially without asking them. But there is a more subtle horribleness here. Actually, there are two.

1) The first horribleness is the leftist obsession with sameness. It is a failure to realize that populism is a necessary condition of capitalism. At least right-wingers tend to be honest about their fascist desires. The left hides them, because that’s not civilized. It is a failure to realize that this need to be “civilized” or “open-minded” or “tolerant” actually means to be “civilized,” “open-minded,” or “tolerant” of ideas sympathetic to capitalist ideals. Just as the charity of the right cannot work, the so-called-socialist left cannot work; the right is honest that they don’t give a damn about the poor, but the left pretends. Which is more offensive?

2) The passage from Stuff White People Like also reveals a horribleness about blame. The po-mo, mu-cu, lib cappies also hide a hatred for the poor. This hatred is based on an inner belief that the poor have chosen to be poor. “Oh if only the poor had an education” is really, “Oh if the poor weren’t so stupid.” The real lament should be “Oh if only the poor weren’t poor.” The poor wouldn’t be poor if the blasted hippie mentality wasn’t so pervasive!

Here, I would launch into a diatribe on hippies. The ideology of capitalism crouches beneath the rank veil of hippie ideology. I don’t like it. But this diatribe can be saved for another time…