Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shaolin

I'm definitely going to gush in this post, because there is no way I can overstate how fantastic Shaolin is! That's all I need to write, but I will go on nevertheless.

Shaolin is incandescent with the spirit of the martial arts, and it's no surprise the Shaolin temple itself endorsed the movie. It must be said that the fights are not ends-in-themselves scenes that you get from most great martial arts movies. There's nothing like Jet Li schooling a crowd of martial artists in Fist of Legend or anything like Tony Jaa wrecking dozens of thugs on the way up a massive staircase in The Protector. The fight scenes in Shaolin are satisfying for sure, but they are also  completely integrated into the plot. This is a good thing, and it elevates the film into the stratosphere, but it is something to keep in mind if you like your martial arts films to heavily emphasize fights. That said, I can't imagine anyone into martial arts movies being dissatisfied with Shaolin because the martial arts and - what the movie terms Martial Zen - are so central to the plot.

Aside from that tiny non-caveat, Shaolin has everything you could possibly ask for in a martial arts movie: rousing battle scenes, amazing fights, martial arts philosophy, Zen monks, a spiritual journey for the hero, a believable villain, great characters, a fantastic cast, genuinely touching drama, and terrific comic relief. At just over two hours, I loved Shaolin so much that I wish there was a version that works in the deleted scenes so I could enjoy the additional depth they provide in future viewings. Of course, as good as the deleted scenes are, I can understand why the director cut them. Strictly speaking, there are not necessary. Further, for a wide audience, pumping the length of this movie towards three hours would likely be too much. I found Shaolin so rich in plot, character, and action that I would eat up the extra material! Director's Cut please!

I'm not even sure where to begin in discussing this phenomenal movie. It must be said that the plot is not original. Andy Lau plays evil warlord Hou Jie, whose ambition overtakes him and causes the destruction of everything he has and most of the people around him. Brought to utter despair, Jie becomes a Zen monk and rebuilds himself through Martial Zen amid the monks of Shaolin temple. We've certainly seen this kind of story before (e.g., Fearless). However, the path Shaolin takes through the trope makes it as engrossing as if it's the first time we're seeing it. For example, since Jie defiled the Shaolin temple just before his fall, most of the monks are not thrilled that he has claimed sanctuary with them and Jie has to prove himself. Also, fate washes up wave after wave of bad karma for Jie to wade through, and it's not long before he has to face the music for his past offenses despite the fact that he has changed. (Again, the deleted scenes deepen Jie's transformation from warlord to monk in some wonderful ways).

All this plot works up to a massive battle scene at the end. Despite the huge scope of this final battle, every detail resonates powerfully because we have so much back story on all the characters. Even secondary and tertiary characters are filled out (often in the deleted scenes) so as to be like flesh and blood people, an example of the amazing writing and characterization woven into the action and fights. This movie would definitely reward multiple viewings.

Andy Lau in Shaolin
As for the performances, I just can't say enough about Andy Lau as General Hou Jie. He commands all the different facets of his character - cruel warlord, doting father, shattered man, earnest monk, and contrite hero - equally well. The evolution and (I think it's fair to say) enlightenment of his character is totally believable and presented in a seamless fashion. Lau also does a great job communicating his character's state of mind, even when he has little or no dialogue. I especially found the scene where he lies at the bottom of the pit and stares at the stars asking "Why?" to be emotionally affecting and right on the money from a 'Martial Zen' point of view. His character's transformation in this movie is one of the most complex performances I've ever seen in a martial arts movie, largely because it can stand on its own as a true dramatic performance.

But the rest of the cast is also strong. Of course, Jackie Chan is a highlight. As Wudao, the eccentric cook, Chan provides comic relief without ever going over the top. His character also has its own subtle transformation, although a lot is left open. This is, of course, a sign of good writing and a movie that doesn't look down on its audience. We don't need every little thing spelled out for us. Elsewhere, Nicholas Tse delivers a wicked villain whose learned his lessons too well at Jie's knee. It would have been easy to overdo this character, but Tse is able to go right up to the edge without losing control. Martial artists Wu Jing and Yu Xing (the latter a Shaolin monk in real life!), and actor Shao-Qun Yu play senior monks in the temple. Each is given a fully-defined character and - in the deleted scenes - subplots to help us get to know them. Xing is especially sympathetic as the fiery Jing Kong who reaches enlightenment when an unexpected refugee arrives at the temple. Great stuff! And this is only about half of the characters that get small but critical screen time without at all detracting from the flow of the main story.

While the martial arts content satisfied me, as I said if you really must have fights that are totally upfront and center, then Shaolin might not be as obvious a 'thumbs-up' movie for you. On the other hand, the amount of material relating to martial arts and Zen philosophy that is sensitively and believably worked into this script (without being preachy), for me, would make up for any possible deficiencies in the number and length of fight scenes. It should also be noted that Shaolin relies on a good number of large battles and, as usual, these scenes tend to displace the hand-to-hand fighting most desirable in martial arts movies. However, on the plus side, every fight and battle is driven by the character's paths. When characters die, triumph, or meet their fate, there is always a resonance for the viewer because these people are so clearly drawn for us. The final battle is totally satisfying and a worthy capstone to the complex story and excellent action that has occurred up to that point.

I've just watched Shaolin, so I hate to be too laudatory. However, I really believe Shaolin will ultimately end-up as one of my favorite martial arts movies of all time. Like Fearless, this is a beautiful-looking movie that celebrates the martial arts spirit, has strong fights, and yet also goes above and beyond by delivering affecting characters in a well-acted and powerful story.

Definitely a must see!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Zazen vs. Meditation

One of the reasons I was initially attracted to Zen Buddhism is that I associated it with calm and inner peace. Find myself running too fast in the world? Letting too many things mess up my equilibrium? Need to remind myself what's important to me? Zen - and specifically Zen meditation  - is the answer! I'm oversimplifying somewhat but, at root, this is kind of what I thought about Zen Buddhism when I started studying it.

During the intervening ten or eleven years, one thing I've learned is that there is a big difference between popular ideas of meditation like the ones I had and Zen meditation (or zazen). One the most important differences is that while popular meditation seems to promise things like happiness, reduced stress, and inner peace, zazen does not. More deeply, Zen itself makes no claims about providing these things to practitioners. Even so, whenever you hear a Zen monk speak - or even just look at the way they carry themselves - you can just tell they have achieved those things (although 'contentment' might be a more accurate word than 'happiness'). So why is this? I believe the explanation lies in the philosophical differences between Zen and the self-help/new-age movement.

A few disclaimers before I continue. In writing about these differences, I'm not trying to say one way or the other is wrong or could never be helpful to anyone. I'm just sharing my own experiences and understanding. Let's also define some terms: 'meditation' will refer to popular practices and 'zazen' will stand for Zen meditation specifically. Now, onward...

The best place I can think to begin explaining the philosophical differences between zazen and meditation is to say that meditation seems to view unhappiness (or more broadly, suffering) as an emotional state that is very different from happiness. It's a kind of negative energy from which we need to free ourselves in order to be happy or at peace. In contrast, Zen views both suffering and happiness as responses to the world around us. So, in essence, they are the same thing.

Further, in Zen both happiness and suffering are temporary states. We are happy until something makes us unhappy, and then we remain unhappy until something makes us happy again. Zen is about escaping from this vicious circle entirely. As a result, from a Zen perspective, the idea of meditating to end unhappiness or stress is wrong-minded.

While Zen Buddhists see suffering as an inherent part of being alive, we also believe that much of the suffering people endure is unnecessary. It is needlessly self-induced. When we are unhappy or stressed or lacking inner peace, it is often not the result of external factors but due to our own undisciplined thinking. The human mind is a magnificent machine that can solve the deepest scientific questions about the universe, envision masterpieces of art, and compose symphonies. However, in our day to day life, it can be more like a spoiled brat: running amok as if high on sugar and stamping its foot and screaming if it doesn't get a cookie that it wants right away. The Zen view is that, left undisciplined, the mind is more likely to create suffering than symphonies. Zazen is the means of disciplining the unruly mind and, by extension, ourselves and our approach to life.

This Zen idea of zazen as a form of self-discipline, or a way to bring the mind under control and focus it, is very different from popular thinking related to meditation. Most commonly, meditation seems to be presented as some kind of altered state of consciousness or a sleepy never-never land we visit to chill out. In contrast to these ideas, during zazen, one is alert and acutely aware of the immediate moment. Posture and/or breathing is rigorously paid mind to and, in some Zen meditation groups, a teacher will give you a little whack if you are not sitting correctly or are doing something else not appropriate for zazen. Compared to meditation, zazen seems a lot less like relaxation and much more like lining up before a drill sergeant for marching.

That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but there's definitely some truth to it. Just like a gymnast standing on one foot on a balance beam must have absolute focus and control over their body, during zazen we must have absolute focus and control of our minds in order to discipline them. To extend the metaphor, the time during which we sit in zazen is the same as the 'center' on which the gymnast's body is balanced. If the gymnast lets their body move off-center either backward or forward, they will fall. In zazen, we focus on the present moment and do not let ourselves move off-center by thinking about the past or future.

And when I say 'the present moment', I really mean right that second and nothing more. We do not think about what we will be doing even in an hour in the future, nor actively consider what has happened to us within the last hour. This kind of focus takes a good deal of effort at first, because we are simply not used to reining in our minds this way. When someone has achieved this focus during zazen for a sustained amount of time, we say they have entered samadhi. I've found that, when I am in samadhi, I have those feelings of calm, peace, and contentment promised by meditation.

Unfortunately, while one can have these feelings during meditation or samadhi (and perhaps even hold onto them for a short time afterwards), unless one is learning to discipline the mind, the feelings will 'wear off' within a few hours. This is why the focus of zazen is not these emotional benefits but the ability to discipline the mind. Without this discipline, nothing is actually gained. Further, once this discipline is mastered, it can be summoned and maintained during normal life.

So the positive emotional benefits are ancillary benefits of zazen - as opposed to the goal in meditation - and they occur as a result of the discipline we're learning by repeatedly sitting in zazen. In essence, sitting in zazen and experiencing samadhi in training us to recognize what the right mindset feels like. As we become familiar with the experience, we almost instinctively know when we are engaged in undisciplined behavior and we can shut it down. This helps us rein in our minds and avoid needless, self-induced suffering.

A final point also needs to be made about the difference between zazen and meditation. While meditation often uses phrases such as 'finding inner peace' or 'seeking truth', Zen practitioners believe we already have inner peace and truth. However, because our minds are not disciplined, we cannot focus on these things. The writing of ancient Zen masters all the way back to Bodhidharma repeatedly exhort us to merely sit in zazen because, in so doing, truth and understanding come without effort.

In fact, the picture to the right and the quote: "Peace comes from within; do not seek it without" is attributed to the Buddha. So you can see that this tenet goes right back to the origins and root of Zen Buddhism.

The implication of this tenet is that using zazen to seek... anything...or to actively strive for something is wrong-minded. Again, this is very different than meditation which often refers to a 'journey' we are on with some goal at the end of the trip. No trajectory of this kind is desired in Zen Buddhism.

It was difficult for me to put all this into words, and I may not have everything correct or stated as clearly as I intend. However, this is something that has been simmering in my head for a couple years now, and I wanted to take a stab at crystallizing it!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zen and Neuroscience

Buddhist monk participating in a neuroscience experiment
In recent years, neuroscientists have made strides in understanding human brain function. These strides have implications about our behavior, where our identity (some would say 'soul') resides, and even the concept of free will. Of course I imagine one must take these theories with a grain of salt since the science is relatively young, and we may not understand emergent brain functions that go beyond what specific areas of the brain can do. Still, there is no question that neuroscience is demystifying our brains (and us), and demystification is usually another way of saying we're abandoning superstition.

One of my closest friends is what can only be described as a 'born-again atheist', and he posts articles to Facebook about science, debunked religious beliefs, longevity research, and neuroscience. He also sends me articles in a futile attempt to convince me that cats and dogs have no emotions but he is, of course, completely wrong about that, (jab jab, Paul!). Anyway, a while back I discussed one of his neuroscience posts that spoke to the physiological impact that sitting in zazen has on the brain (see post: Zazen and Brain Physiology).

He recently sent me an interview with a neurophilosopher(?) named Patricia Churchland in which she addresses the implications of neuroscience, what she terms neuroexistentialism (see New Scientist article You Are Your Brain). These implications tend to disconcert people. For example, they suggest our identity or self may be strictly tied to our brains. This would tend to discredit any belief that says who and what we are is an ethereal essence, which can continue after we die by floating off to heaven or being reincarnated into a new life. Despite the obvious controversial nature these views have for many people, I continue to be surprised how tightly they fit with Zen philosophy or, in some cases, how Zen philosophy seems to help me integrate them into my life in a positive manner.

The Afterlife
For example, while neuroscience may never be able to definitively prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife, the direction it takes us in is very disconcerting to afterlife proponents. In this question, Zen Buddhism counters by suggesting we should be focused on the moment. Not the past, not the future, not what might or might not happen after we die. As such, I found myself not especially upset that there may be no afterlife. Since I can't know what will happen when I die, expending mental thought fretting about it isn't sensible. Further, how do I know that when I'm however-old-I'll-be when I die that I'll want an afterlife? Again, worrying about this now and drawing myself away from the life I do in fact have just makes no sense. I have this equanimity as a result of the discipline I've learned while sitting in zazen.

Free Will
Another issue tackled by Churchland in the interview is that of free will. Does it exist? Her answer is very interesting from a Zen Buddhist perspective: "A better question is whether we have self-control...We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses." While this is a rather clinical description of the mindset one achieves through zazen, I can't find much fault with it. Through Zen, I have learned that the quantity and quality of my responses do much more to shape the reality I experience than the specific situations I face in a normal day. Many of us make ourselves unhappy by reacting to everything. In contrast, when I am disciplined enough to control and withhold response, I retain my equilibrium and focus. A natural by-product of this centered mind state is a sense of peace and, often, contentment. Again, this is core to Zen Buddhism.

Finally, there is Churchland's explanation of why she feels no need to be a 'cultural warrior' preaching the wisdom of the neuroexistentialist view: "People are, by and large, smart enough and reasonable enough that they come to a good decision eventually. But it takes time to think about it, to go back and forth. It's something that you have to marinate in for a while." This is absolutely the way Zen Buddhists learn. There is no proselytizing, and 'marinating' is a great way to describe what a Zen Buddhist is doing during zazen (and with their Zen studies, in general). We are experiencing the moment, finding the knowledge we have, and slowly learning how to bring that knowledge out of zazen and into everyday life.

I have repeatedly found that Zen Buddhism seems perfectly compatible with even the most challenging frontiers of science. In a way, it's as if Zen Buddhism helps me to embrace reality - even a potentially off-putting reality - and allows me to accept it in a way that is positive and healthy. Perhaps this is the true role of spirituality in relationship to science?

The Dalai Lama may have said it best during a talk where he was asked if the findings of cosmologists - which disprove certain Buddhist creation myths - will threaten Buddhism. In his opinion, the exact opposite is true. Science furthers our progression down the path.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

'Happy Holidays' vs. 'Merry Christmas'

Merry Christmas?
In the US, we once again enter the holiday season with some Christians waxing militant about always saying 'Merry Christmas' to everyone no matter what. They say the US is a Christian country, the non-denominational greeting 'Happy Holidays' diminishes their faith, and...well, you get the picture. It's a lot of negativity injected by some Christians into what is supposed to be a happy time.

As a Zen Buddhist, I'm not at all bothered by 'Merry Christmas'. In fact, I expect it from Christians as this is what the holiday means to them and it's an important holiday in their faith. However, it's positively bizarre to me that someone would suggest their Christian faith is diminished unless they always and knowingly wish 'Merry Christmas' to Jews, Muslims, atheists, and everyone/anyone that doesn't share their faith. As our country becomes more diverse, how does sometimes using a greeting that includes everyone (especially in classrooms, the workplace, or during a national address) diminish a faith that is allegedly about "peace on earth; good will towards man"? Do these militant Christians really expect non-Christians to go around wishing people 'Merry Christmas'? Flipping it around, why would they choose to be offended when they hear someone using an inclusive greeting? Isn't it a sign of someone being thoughtful or using common courtesy or...something like that?

Jim and I refer to our annual party as a Holiday Party. This is because neither of us are Christians. However, I sometimes call it a Christmas Party, and I'm happy if my Christian guests call it that too. Further, I often find myself saying 'Merry Christmas' to people (most often in response to the greeting), and it's never once crossed my mind that doing this was a betrayal of or in any way diminished my Zen Buddhist faith. As a result, I suppose I expect any reasonable Christian to be capable of using 'Happy Holidays' from time to time, if needed, without having a spiritual crisis about it.

I might be sympathetic towards the pro-'Merry Christmas' position if Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Zen Buddhists (or whatever) were making a stink over well-meant greetings related to their religions. But they aren't. Christians seem to be the only religious group who feel the need to do this (and politicize it, I might add). I were Christian, I'd be much more concerned about what that says about my faith than in any perceived slight from kind-hearted well-wishers. 

Holiday Party 2013 (and a mini-rant about 'Happy Holidays')

We just had our annual Holiday Party. Here's some photos from the festivities! Thanks to Kelly and Stacy for the photos (since I took none this year!)







Happy Holidays!!!!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Assassins

Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is an excellent samurai movie filled with loads of swordplay and action. Samurai movies aren't my usual cup of tea, because I prefer weaponless hand-to-hand combat. However, I was fully able to enjoy this movie thanks to the direct nature of the battles. Unlike many large-scale battle scenes where individual combatants are like ants on the screen, this movie places you right in the midst of the battle with specific characters. This has a lot to do with how well-shot 13 Assassins is. There is nothing low-budget or amateur about the look or cinematography of the film (although a few CGI scenes are off). Despite the polish, the movie never gets in the way of showing us action and plenty of it. Miike struck a near-perfect balance there.

While I typically do not demand character development to enjoy a martial arts movie, I certainly don't think it's a bad thing when it is well-integrated in the story. In this case, characterization is definitely thin, and 'development' is not on the menu. Given that we have thirteen assassins, that means some of them get lost or seem the same. However, I felt I could distinguish them enough for the movie's purposes, and their comradeship and interaction - such as it was - was compelling enough for me. If the movie had spent a little more time with them, yes it would have been a better movie for sure. However, the movie was not harmed by the lack of focus on characterization.

The movie is really in three acts: 1) assembling the assassins for the battle, 2) traveling to and preparing for the battle, and 3) the battle. In order to drive deeper characterization, the movie would have had to pump up acts one or two, and I think this would have made the movie take too long to get to the pay-off. And make no mistake, the pay-off is the battle at the end. It's a long, amazing battle that totally delivers! Best of all, I don't recall any use of wires, gravity defying superhumanism, or poetic beauty shots. This made everything much more exciting, in the moment, and rendered the swordplay much more impressive to me.

The only exception to the realism was when the vagrant character, Kiga, reappears at the end alive and well. He was obviously killed earlier in the movie, and I did not understand why/how he came back to life. However, the movie is so strong, that I attributed this to me missing something related to samurai culture/folklore rather than the movie doing something goofy. And it certainly didn't hurt my enjoyment; I just went with it.

13 Assassins was a thrilling ride, and I would definitely watch it again. Recommended!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Grandmaster

While flying home from LA on a business trip, I was stunned and delighted to find that the selection of movies included a martial arts movie: director Wong Kar-wai's Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster! Thank you, United Airlines, for not limiting my choice to the usual airline fodder: the latest attempts at comedy from former SNLers and formulaic rom-coms.

From what I understand, three cuts of The Grandmaster have screened (insert annoyed growl). There's the original Chinese theatrical release (130 minutes), a version shown at Cannes (123 minutes), and the typically slashed US version (108 minutes). From what I gather in the always helpful consumer reviews on amazon, no 'full' or 'uncut' version of The Grandmaster exists because new scenes were added to the Cannes version that did not appear in the Chinese release. So buying a copy of this movie right now is risky, as the situation cries out for a Director's Cut or Collector's Edition. I'm not sure which version I saw, but I'm 99% positive it wasn't the US version because a) what I saw had to be a minimum of two hours, b) there was no option for dubbed English, and c) dialogue concerning martial arts philosophy is what usually ends up on the cutting room floor in US versions of martial arts movies.

So, with that out of the way, the other elephant in the room is how Kar-wai's The Grandmaster stacks up against what (I imagine) is its key competition, Donnie Yen's Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (click to get to reviews on Zen Throw Down). My conclusion is that the Kar-wai and Yen movies are so different in approach and style that it's a bit hard to compare them. Yen's Ip Man (the original, that is, the sequel is pretty lame across the board) is the better picture in terms of fight scenes. While Leung reportedly studied martial arts to star in Kar-wai's movie, Yen is without question a far better martial artist. Ip Man has far more satisfying displays of martial arts than we get in The Grandmaster. The latter movie uses a too much wire-fu, slow-mos, cuts, and slick art direction to compete on this score. For example, the first fight in the movie employs a ludicrous amount of rain to dramatize the scene. It's like the actors are fighting in a pool of water! It's not that the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are bad; they're just not intended to be as direct and visceral.

That said, the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are given a far better context than Ip Man provided. Ip Man was a bit dark in tone and lacked much focus on martial arts philosophy. The Grandmaster delivers this content in spades. Over and over, the dialogue - and perhaps the whole theme of the movie - is steeped in martial arts philosophy and questions of honor. Several fights are driven by or preceded by such content. For me, this makes the fights resonate more. For a fan of martial arts movies, I think both are worth seeing depending on your mood. If you want straight-up fight scenes, then Yen's movie is your choice. If you want something deeper then opt for Kar-wai. For those not into martial arts movies as a genre, The Grandmaster is the best choice.

The Grandmaster has flashes of the cinematography and graceful wire-fu that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero beautiful to watch. Wisely, Kar-wai doesn't take his film anywhere near as far in this direction as those movies. The Grandmaster and remains mostly grounded in reality. This approach fits the more dramatic tone of the movie, yet does not make us question whether the movie belongs in the genre. The Grandmaster is also propelled by the performances of an excellent cast. Tony Leung's portrayal of Ip Man outshines Yen's for, while Yen is without doubt the better martial artist, Leung is without doubt the better actor. The Grandmaster also offers the always compelling Ziyi Zhang. She very nearly steals the movie as - strangely - she has more storyline than Leung!

As a biopic overall, The Grandmaster works better than the Yen franchise. The Grandmaster covers the same historic timeline as the two Ip Man movies however, since Ip Man 2 is a very weak movie, The Grandmaster does a better job telling the whole story. Both films also have brief references in their endings to Ip Man meeting the young Bruce Lee. In Ip Man 2, this meeting is handled in an embarrassingly ham-fisted manner. In The Grandmaster, it is quite subtle. The facial resemblance of the child playing the young Bruce Lee to the actual actor is the only cue we're given and we are allowed to make the connection ourselves.

I'd highly recommend The Grandmaster, even if you have seen Ip Man. It's a different take on the story and a different kind of movie altogether, and it's a satisfying viewing experience filled with dialogue and fights that breath in the spirit of the martial arts.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Emile Zola - 'The Belly of Paris'

The reason I became interested in reading Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle in its entirety is that I read and was fascinated by several of the more famous novels in the Cycle (L'Assommoir, Nana). Once I decided to read all the novels, I started reading in the order Zola wrote them so I tackled The Belly of Paris early on. However, this book is actually the 11th novel in the Cycle if you go by Zola's preferred reading order, and I have found his order makes a lot more sense in understanding this massive literary accomplishment than reading books at random or in the order he wrote them. So, in short, I'm able to quickly jump in with a post about The Belly of Paris!

As noted in my last Zola post (A Love Episode), one aspect of the Cycle is that it explores all three broad socio-economic classes of society. Each of these classes (wealthy, bourgeoisie, and poor) largely sync up with one of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family (the Rougons, Mourets, and Macquarts, respectively). Since Zola is using the Cycle to explore the impact of heredity, the characters fall into these classes largely due to their family affiliations. The Belly of Paris is the first novel to focus on a member of the Macquart family.

While Zola's interest in heredity is a well-established point of the Cycle, I imagine he also believed environment could influence (or perhaps disguise) heredity. To this end, Zola populates the Cycle with several characters who cross into another social class so he can explore the intersection of heredity and environment. The most obvious example of this intersection is the entire Mouret family, which arises from a marriage between Marthe Rougon and Francois Mouret (the latter a member of the Macquart family). More specifically, several individual characters span classes too. For example, Angelique (ostensibly a Rougon) is transplanted to a family of artisans in The Dream. Serge Mouret (Abbe Mouret's Transgression) lives in a poverty stricken town, and his middle class sense of propriety leave him comically out-of-touch. Octave Mouret (Pot-Bouille and The Ladies' Paradise) is the epitome of a middle class social climber, but his success as a retail magnate makes him much closer in character to Eugene Rougon or Aristide Saccard.

In The Belly of Paris, we have another character that crosses the lines: Lisa Macquart Quenu. Daughter of the thoroughly disreputable Antoine Macquart, she has married a respectable shopkeeper and escaped the vat of dysfunction and depravity that haunts the cash-strapped and illegitimate Macquart family. In Chapter 2, Zola describes Lisa's hereditary roots in her father and mother. That said, he spends a lot more time laying out the middle class sensibilities that drive Lisa and her husband. For example, their passionless decision to marry is completely tied up in a desire to be comfortable and is made only when they come into a large amount of money. Zola does a masterful job of fusing their practical aims with the language of a passionate tryst as the pair tabulate their 'loot' on Lisa's bed: "The bed had become very untidy, with the sheets hanging loosely; and the gold had made hallows on the pillow, as if their heads had rolled and twisted there while they were in the throes of passion." This is a merger of interest aimed at achieving moderate comfort and ease, not a grand passion of love or greed.

Lisa's staunch bourgeois mindset is further highlighted in her opinions. She denigrates her father's idleness, but she also rejects the high-flying Aristide Saccard's unending quest to gain and then retain fabulous wealth. Lisa's moral character is ultimately banal. For example, she supports the Empire not because it is good or just but because she and her husband are able to make a good living under its rule. She would never stop to consider the Empire from a strictly moral vantage point; self-interest is her universe. Behind all of this it's notable that Zola wrote The Belly of Paris right after The Kill suggesting that, after he dissected the way the wealthy devour society in the latter book, he wanted to speak to how the middle class enjoy their modest lot at the foot of the table. As long as Lisa (and people like her) are fat and comfortable, they aspire to nothing. They worry about nothing. They are concerned with nothing. They are a herd of grazing cows...perhaps one additional meaning of the novel's title?

Les Halles (circa Zola's time)
From this standpoint, it's clear why Zola chose to set this story in the massive food market of Les Halles. It's a hot bed of lower middle class and bourgeois foibles, filled with two-faced, vicious gossips and petty rivalries. More to the point, Zola uses the food market and its inherent purpose of satiating hunger to underline his depiction of the middle class (lower middle class is perhaps most accurate here) as well-fed and self-satisfied. In one passage, Zola has Claude Lantier, another member of the Macquart family (and the main character of the brilliant novel The Masterpiece) formally size up this angle of society:
"...the Fat, big enough to burst, preparing their evening orgies; the Thin, doubled up with hunger, staring in from the street like envious stick figures; and then again, the Fat, sitting at table, their cheeks bulging with food, chasing away a Thin man who has had the temerity to insinuate himself into their midst...In these pictures Claude saw the entire drama of human life; and he ended by dividing everyone into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of which devours the other and grows fat and sleek and endlessly enjoys itself."
Indeed this passage could be a synopsis of Zola's entire view of society and the interaction of the classes within it: the endless preying of the rich and fat on the poor and thin. The middle class are desperate to attain 'Fat' status and keep a hold of it.

The pervasiveness of food imagery occurs from the very first pages of the novel, when poverty-stricken, pseudo-seditionist Florent Quenu (Lisa's brother-in-law) arrives in Paris on a wagon piled high with food...and yet he is slowly starving to death. Florent is the 'Thin' insinuating himself into Lisa's 'Fat' world of complacency, which is described as follows:
"The business continued to prosper, without their having to work especially hard, just as Lisa preferred. She had carefully avoided any possible source of anxiety, and the days passed in an atmosphere of calm, complacent well-being...Father, mother, and daughter all grew sleek and fat." 
However, this atmosphere is deceptive and hides the grasping reality. For example, it's telling that despite recognizing Florent's past sacrifices for him and his oft-proclaimed love for his brother, simple Quenu is instantly stung and angered at the idea of sharing any part of his inheritance with Florent. Lisa's primary concerns with Florent are monetary and to make sure he gets a job so he doesn't set the tongues of the gossips wagging. Of course, being a Zola novel - and a Zola novel about the Macquarts to boot - we pretty much expect that disaster is on the horizon. No spoilers, but Florent's tendencies towards social justice and agitation catch up with him. But don't be fooled. Zola's point is not to descry the injustice Florent suffers. (Zola is much too staunch a naturalist for such sentimental blather). His point in this novel is how none of the events in life pierce the thick insulation of middle class existence. After the disturbance created by Florent, Lisa's life returns to normal. In fact, the petty warfare between her and a rival is largely patched up.

This unflappable, indestructible banality exists to a certain degree in all the novels about middle class characters in the Cycle. Helene's somnolent existence in A Love Episode is an excellent example. Spiritually, Serge experiences a shattering break with reality and his religion in Abbe Mouret's Transgression. However, by the end of the novel, everything is 'back to normal'. And in Pot-Bouille no matter how far the characters sink, the interrelationships that forge their petty social milieu are unimpaired. In fact, those who refuse to return to the status quo are looked down on with the eye-rolling annoyance reserved for fools and pests. Only in The Conquest of Plassans are the middle class characters impacted, and this is because the wealthy movers trod over them without noticing as they reach for power.

Zola's theme is best encapsulated in the final words of the novel, spoken by the poor, bohemian painter Claude Lantier: "Respectable people...what bastards!"

In summary, The Belly of Paris (I read the Oxford edition translated into wonderful English prose by Brian Nelson) is much more interesting as social commentary and much better plotted than some of the Mouret books (e.g., A Love Episode). There is a lot of description here, revealing Zola's Naturalism, but it's not too disruptive to what the novel is trying to do. While Pot-Bouille remains the top of the heap (or the bottom, depending on how you look at it) in terms of scathing satire of the bourgeoisie, The Belly of Paris is a solid entry in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Emile Zola - 'A Love Episode'

Dantan illustration from an early edition
By reading this book, I have made it to the halfway mark! A Love Episode is the tenth of the twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

This novel concerns Helene Mouret, the daughter of Ursule Macquart Mouret. As the story opens we find that she is Helene Grandjean, widow of a husband named Charles and mother to a seriously ill daughter named Jeanne. The story concerns the disruption of Helene's torpid existence by an episode of love: her affair with Henri Deberle, the married doctor treating Jeanne.

A Love Episode is the fifth and last novel that deals with the Mouret branch of the Rougon-Macquart family, the others being: The Conquest of Plassans, Pot-Bouille, The Ladies' Paradise, and Abbe Mouret's Transgression. My recurring issue with several of these novels is that they contain a heavy amount of descriptive passages, which often displaces plot and characterization. A Love Episode definitely suffers from this problem. The problem surprised me because it was such a contrast to most of the four books focused on the Rougon branch of the family, and especially to books I'd previously read relating to the lower class Macquart branch of the family. While almost all Zola's novels are firmly entrenched in naturalism, it was odd to find such thin plots in the books relating to the Mourets.

However, I'm beginning to think I understand that this 'problem' is actually an intentional device of Zola's. As I get more novels in the Cycle under my belt, Zola's overarching structure is becoming clearer. With each branch of the family (Rougon, Mouret, and Macquart), Zola is painting a social class (wealthy, middle class, and poor, respectively). The wealthy Rougons are often painted as occupying the apex of the various spheres of society: politics (Eugene is a powerful crony of the Emperor), trade (Aristide is a financial giant), society (Maxime is an aristocratic dandy), and religion (Angelique is a kind of saint). Meanwhile, the Mouret's mostly occupy the petite bourgeoisie echelons: politics (Silvere's idealism), trade (Octave, Francois, and Helene's first husband are clerks or shopkeepers of varying stature), society (Marthe and Helene's middle class respectability), and religion (Abbe Faujas' all too worldly manipulations). Zola's social satire regarding the upper class relates to their immorality, while with the bourgeoisie it's a lethargic, self-satisfied complaisance.

So getting back to the lack of plot. I feel Zola eschews plot in most of the Mouret novels to illustrate the stagnancy of middle class existence. Of all these characters, only Octave shows drive, and it works to catapult him out of the morass of middle class existence. Even so, his character is riddled with ambition and is very much a creature of the back-biting snake pit he comes from. He even winds up creating a microcosm of class stratification in his store The Ladies Paradise.

In A Love Episode and Pot-Bouille, Zola more clearly dissects the shallow existence of the bourgeoisie. They meander through life, drifting through various social engagements, either in a state of self-satisfied narcolepsy or viciously competing with their peers to gain ground. To complete the picture, Zola deposits a few destitute characters at the edges of these stories as ominous warnings of the precipice of poverty these characters fear more than anything. The poor characters can also serve another purpose, as seen in the relationship between Helene and Mother Fetu, they are outlets for alms or patronage that allow characters to feel morally superior.

In A Love Episode, Helene's middle class life is like a safe, calm pool outside the rush of real human life. Neither religion, love, nor death can penetrate the shell of her soft existence and that of her peers. At one point, Abbe Jouve confesses to her his frequent failure to keep his flock from the casual immorality their aimless lives create. Also, love does not seem to exist for these characters. The passion of their affairs, which Helene is shocked to find so commonplace, is actually quite detached. There is a dreamy quality to Helene's desire for Henri while other characters, such as Juliette and Malignon, have disinterested attractions which seem to arise from social conformity to peer behavior. Even the threat of Jeanne's illness, despite all Helene's apparent maternal love, becomes little more than a means to secure her lover to her (albeit not intentionally). Jeanne senses her displacement and withers, yet Helene drifts further from her as this happens.

In A Love Episode, Zola has defanged his biting satire somewhat. He is not describing overt moral degeneracy here so much as a middle class torpor. (The more active and vicious aspects of middle class infidelity and fornication are scathingly exposed in Pot-Bouille.) In this novel, Helene has no experience with passion. She is slowly stirred towards it after reading a maudlin love scene between the hero Ivanhoe and Rachel. She compares this to her own bloodless marriage with her dead husband, and the tepid courtship of new suitor. When Helene forms her attachment to Henri, it is for no clear reason. She often reminds herself she knows nothing of him or why he desires her. It as if all the characters are dilettantes at adultery, dipping their toes in desire and lust rather than actually experiencing it. The core of their lives are parties and teas, all excuses for Juliette's shallow skills as an entertainer. Her efforts clearly being depicted as pretentious and lacking in both finesse and taste. Even the funeral of a child becomes about whether there are enough flowers and social constructs (little Lucien finds a 'replacement' for a dead girl).

This world, Helene's world, is summed up perfectly at the start of chapter 10: "Upstairs, in her own room, in the peaceful, convent-like atmosphere she found there, Helene experienced a feeling of suffocation. Her room astonished her, so calm, so secluded, so drowsy did it seem with its blue velvet hanging, while she came to it hotly panting with the motion which thrilled her. Was this indeed her room, this dreary, lifeless nook, devoid of air? Hastily she threw open a window, and leaned out to gaze on Paris."

photo of Paris in the 1880s by Claude Monet
And in this way Paris almost becomes a character in the novel. Throughout the story, Zola draws extensive word pictures of the view of Paris Helene sees from her suburban window. Paris represents Life, and yet Helene never visits it and is unfamiliar with it. In fact, Zola's depictions of Paris at various points of the day or season are imbued with the emotions his characters should have.

In the end, the characters in A Love Episode exhibit few real emotions. The closest we get are Jeanne's paroxysms and Henri's desire, the latter being so vaguely painted that we never know for certain whether it's real or not. In the final analysis, Helene refers to her affair with Henri as 'a madness', which gives the novel's title a special nuance. Real love (or even emotion) is only an 'episode', before one returns to the empty normalcy of middle class existence. Helene does this when, at the end of the novel, she yields to the proposal of her respectable suitor and leaves Paris (Life) completely. Helene doesn't implode or explode like other Zola characters, she simply softens.

Thematically, A Love Episode probably fills a important niche in the overarching structure of Zola's Cycle. From that standpoint, it's interesting to read. However, as a novel on its own terms, I'm not sure it could be especially satisfying.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dragon (starring Donnie Yen)

It's been a while since I watched a new martial arts movie, and I just got done watching Dragon. [FYI: I saw the uncut, 155 minute version. The US version apparently cut over 30 minutes. Grrr!] In Dragon, Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a quiet paper maker and family man who lives in a small village. He becomes a hero when he inadvertently defeats some thugs who come to the village looking for trouble. An investigator (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) looks into the case and slowly unravels Jinxi's past, which is much darker than anyone suspects. Don't worry; no spoilers!

The movie raises a couple themes, such as: Can people change? What is the relationship of mercy and justice? Admittedly, Dragon doesn't tie these questions up too well, but I did find myself watching Yen's character for evidence one way or the other of the answer to the first question. That was rewarding. Plus I was able to overlook the lack of full resolution for a lot of reasons, mainly because Dragon has a strong plot as well great martial arts scenes. This is a pretty rare combination in a martial arts movie. Second, I totally bought into Yen and Kaneshiro's characters. Good performances by the males leads made this side of the film a highlight, especially during some creepy scenes where we're not sure what Yen's character is capable of. All this, plus a great look for the film placed Dragon in the above average category pretty much from the start. Noteworthy that Yen directed the action sequences himself, and he did a top notch job.

On the downside, as the movie progressed it unfortunately tried to up the ante on the quiet, character-driven story through the use of over-the-top melodrama and bat shit crazy violence. As Dragon made Liu Jinxi's past darker and darker and a long-lost person from that past nuttier and nuttier, I found the film less and less engaging. I was actually kind of underwhelmed during the final fight scene, not because the skill or filming was off but because I just didn't buy the situation and characters anymore. It's almost as if the writers didn't have enough faith in their story, so they felt they had to introduce extra flashbacks of cruel violence and dysfunction to compensate. For me, it hurt the film.

Part of my objection is that I generally find martial arts movies that get too dark just don't work for me. The best martial arts movies display great skills from the stars which, of course, entails a degree of violence (and even some 'ick factor' too!).  However, the best films also rarely stray too far from the spirit of the martial arts. Dragon starts out really well along these lines, and it does a great job subtly working in some martial arts/Zen philosophy early on. Later, however, we get bloodthirsty psychos, cruelty to children, and a lightning bolt. That stuff just doesn't fit with the spirit of martial arts, and it falls flat. Of course, this is just my taste, but I doubt I'm the only martial arts fanboy who feels this way. Plus, Dragon did not need to go there in order to work.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed this movie very much but my enjoyment definitely dipped in the last third of the movie. I recommend it as a strong martial arts movie, especially for Donnie Yen fans and those who want a solid plot in their martial arts flicks.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Haiku Thursday

It's been a while since I did a Haiku Thursday post (largely because I haven't been writing any!). This one came to me while I was in zazen after doing my first walking meditation.

Walk like the elephant
In one breath the tide goes out
endless as starlight


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mumonkan, Koan 25: Kyozan's Dream

In a dream, Kyozan Osho went to Maitreya's place and was led in to sit in the third seat. A senior monk struck with a gavel and said, "Today the one in the third seat will speak." Kyozan rose and, striking with the gavel, said, "The truth of Mahayana is beyond the four propositions and transcends the hundred negations. Taicho! Taicho!"

This koan's solution seems to be the same as what I pulled out of Koan 24 (Fuketsu's Speech and Silence). Specifically, the idea of speech and silence not being different. To clarify, per Sekida's notes, the 'four propositions' are existing, non-existing, both existing and non-existing, and neither existing nor non-existing. Also according to Sekida, the 'hundred negations' are the multiplying of the four propositions. I would imagine the 'multiplying' refers to interpretation and critical thinking or, in other words, thought that interprets reality rather than being a direct perception of it. (Maybe the setting of the dream also relates to the idea of the experience pulling from both existing and non-existing.)

So just as speech and silence are and are not different in the last koan, here existence and non-existence are and are not different. Two sides of the same coin perhaps. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how we think of it because the truth does not come from nomenclature, classification, or analysis. It's about the purity of experience in the moment.

The similarity of the solutions between koans 24 and 25 made me think about how and why Mumon selected koans for inclusion in the Mumonkan. Did he select and order them so as to create a ladder? By that I mean does solving one koan give you a piece of the puzzle for solving the next one? Or did Mumon simply select koans that he felt were most useful with his students?

I'm not sure anyone knows this, given how long ago the Mumonkan was put together. I suppose it's unlikely Mumon was interested in constructing a ladder. That seems to be far too linear an approach for something that should be as open-ended as koan studies.

Halloween 2013

Here are some photos from a friend's Halloween party. I went as a 'French marquis' and won the costume contest! My trophy was a fun jack o' lantern bobble head. This year was also the first year in a long time that Jim and I did some decorating in and outside the house, including carving pumpkins. Plus there was tons of horror movie viewing. It was a very rainy Halloween, and we didn't anticipate many kids coming by. But the rain stopped and it turned out to be a pretty warm evening. We ended up with a good turnout yet...alas...still plenty of candy left over.

Very Halloween!



Friday, November 1, 2013

Climate Change is Real...And?

On Zen Throw Down, my 'mini-rants' are posts in which I go off about an issue in contemporary culture. It's a great outlet for me, because I hot button debates are often so politicized that it's pointless to have them with people. The debate isn't about ideas; it's an excuse for liberals and conservatives to score points off each other.

Anyway on to the mini-rant.

I guess the place to start is to state that there is no question climate change is happening. We know this because Earth's climate has always undergone change. This is a scientific and historical fact, so claiming there is no climate change is about as intelligent as claiming the Earth is flat.

Source: USGRCP (2009)
What I object to is the content of discourse. For example, this chart purports to quantify the temperature changes we would have if the only driver was 'natural forces'. Arrgh!!! Where do I start? First of all, the idea that human impact on the environment is somehow 'unnatural' is wrong. We are a species of life on this planet just like all the others and, as with most successful species in Earth's history, we impact our environment. For example, Earth's atmosphere contained little oxygen for a huge chunk of it's early history (we're talking hundreds of millions of years). This changed when cyanobacteria arose, thrived, and for millions of years polluted the air with their waste: oxygen. Was this 'unnatural'? No. Did it make things difficult or impossible for some forms of life that existed before cyanobacteria. Probably. But so what? One species cup of tea is another species cup of hemlock. Some other reasons I'm skeptical of this chart and the whole man vs. nature dialogue:

  1. It's unlikely we can isolate 'human effects' from 'natural forces' in a model like this, because the planet's climate is a complex machine that we don't fully understand. 
  2. How can anyone seriously believe that all the upward change is due to human activity alone? This would mean there are no natural forces that lead to increases in average temperature. What about sunspot cycles? Volcanic eruptions? Global weather patterns? 
  3. Just me, but any theory that suggests humans are somehow all-important smacks of arrogance, not good science. This kind of arrogance is what led to theories like geocentrism, so I tend to look askance at such claims.

So much for the basic skepticism I bring to this discussion. Now let's move to the important stuff: the data. And then after we peruse it, we can destroy the conclusions being bandied about regarding climate change. In so doing I promise you one thing: by the end of this mini-rant - whatever your political stripes are - you will not be happy with what I have to say. So if you only like to read things you agree with, stop now.

From Bart Verheggen's blog: My View On Climate Change
Here we have a chart showing temperature anomalies since 1880. To be clear, I make no claims about the accuracy of this data or the thinking that went into pulling it. I selected it because it represents the conventional wisdom on the subject. I must also state that I do not know what Mr. Verheggen's beliefs are regarding climate change. Again, I'm using his chart only because it describes the commonly accepted data. In debates, I always think it's best to accept my opponent's data at face value because, if you can destroy them with their own arguments, they can't get back up again.

So, looking at this chart, the obvious interpretation is that temperatures are going up and they are much higher than they have been in the past. One could argue that the shift is small, especially as it relates to something with as many unpredictable and little understood inputs as global climate. However, let's not quibble. For the sake of argument let's accept the data and the conclusion that global temperature is going up and that it's higher now than at any point in this chart. After all, this is what leads to the alarm about global climate change.

My argument is that to use this data to draw that conclusion, even accepting everything I have mentioned above, is wrong. First, we need to dispense with an unstated - but nevertheless accepted - notion that I feel lies under all the climate change discussion: that climate change is somehow abnormal. The truth is that climate change is not a recent phenomenon that has popped up in the last century thanks to humans. Climate change is the norm on planet Earth. It's totally natural and would be happening even if humans had never discovered fossil fuel. In it's history, the Earth has been a whole lot hotter than it is now and it has been colder. For a good portion of Earth's history, there were no polar ice caps. So while the fact ice caps are shrinking poses significant problems for humans and indeed many other kinds of life, it is not something especially novel. In contrast, the 'Snowball Earth' theory suggests that Earth has been plunged several times into a deep freeze in which the entire surface of our planet was covered in ice sheets (or perhaps slush sheets). So climate change is normal, and it can be extreme. It's not pleasant to think 'Mother Earth' isn't terribly maternal, but some changes in climate have been so extreme that mass extinctions occurred. In fact, most life that has risen on Earth is extinct and most of these extinctions happened before humans existed (another blow to our species' self-importance). So the bottom line is that if you want a stable climate, then you should move to the Moon because stability has never been an option on Earth.

Now that we have that underlying assumption cleared up, let's dispense with the argument the scare mongers explicitly raise: climate change we see in the last century is somehow abnormal. More specifically, the rate of the change is somehow abnormal. If you look at the temperature chart above, you might buy into this voodoo. However, the problem is that the chart only shows data for about 100 years. Drawing conclusions about climate change from such a short time scale is akin to looking at three feet of concrete sidewalk in front of you and saying the surface of the entire planet is paved in concrete. The point being that the time scale of this data is near-sighted (and sometimes probably intentionally so to make it scarier).

We have to remember that the Earth is not a dollhouse. The purpose of climate is not to create a convenient setting for human life. Climate is a complex - purposeless - system influenced by multiple inputs that cause short term fluctuations and accumulate to affect real change on huge timescales. Events like ice ages, sunspot cycles, volcanic eruptions, and fossil fuel emissions have short term impacts, but they are blips in the trend and not meaningful long term. To illustrate, let's look at our current temperature within the correct, long-term time scale. The chart at right illustrates average global temperatures back to the dawn of life (today is at the top). Warm average temperatures are on the left and cool average temperatures are on the right. [For us 'mericans, 12C is 54F and 22C is 72F. Remember that's average global temperature, so 72F is hot, hot, hot!]

This full picture tells us a lot of things, but the most important for this discussion is that the current temperature is actually quite cool. One might even say the Earth is due for a warm-up after millions of years of cooling. [Note for context: the Tertiary Period began 65 million years ago, right after the dinosaurs went extinct]. One has to ask if, after about 30 million years of cooling, whether it isn't a bit silly to get worked up over the tiny, short term lift shown in the first chart? If all our fossil fuel emissions and other 'unnatural' behavior hasn't raised the average temperature by even 1 degree C in 100 years, then humans can't be that important.

Scare mongers have an answer to this. They produce charts extrapolating climate change into the future. Extrapolations are legitimate mathematical tools, but too often they are done by taking the existing trend and running it out as if the factors that give rise to the trend are not changed. Since we do not totally understand climate change, this seems a bit dicey. But more importantly, I would suggest it is almost certain the factors that give rise to the warming trend will change. Consider: even within the 100 years, human technology has moved from coal to oil to a mix of oil, nuclear, and clean energy. There's no reason to think fossil fuel emissions will be the same for the next twenty years, let alone the next century.

In summation, my opinion is climate change is happening but that our contribution to it is minimal and, even if it weren't, we've passed the hump of the worst behavior. As a result, there is little we can do to stop what changes are occurring, and we certainly have no power to save the planet from its next climate crisis (which, by the way, may not occur for thousands of years). The whole issue has been blown way out of proportion!

Now, if you are a conservative reader, here's where you stop liking what I have to say. Just because we have minimal impact on climate change does not mean we can't make a colossal mess of our environment in the short term. As I pointed out before, successful species impact environment. That has always been true. So we will hurt the environment if we indiscriminately burn fossil fuels, spill oil into the oceans, spray aerosols all day, and negligently dump chemicals into the water supply. It's the same thing as spraying an anthill with pesticides; the ants die when their environment is polluted. The only issue with the analogy is that the ants have an out humans do not. They live in one little hill, so they can move over a few feet and start all over. Humans societies occupy huge spaces, and we only have one planet, atmosphere, and hydrosphere to rely on. If we ruin it, we're done. By the way, you could also argue that ants aren't stupid enough to dump pesticide into their own living space while humans...ahem, let's move on.

And it's not like this is just an opinion. To see what things would look like without the restraints those pesky environmentalists, all you've got to do is look at China. There are photos all over the web about the debilitating smog clouds there. It gets so bad that people sometimes return from traveling there coughing blood from exposure to...whatever it is that's in that smog. So, regardless of the truth or fiction of global climate change, smog and pollutants can make our environment in the here and now very unhealthy. Since we have a vested interest in an environment that sustains a diversity of life (e.g., fish, cows, and crops), we are obligated to curtail actions that harm the environment.

The argument from capitalists is that environmentalism hurts business profits. Yes, it does. But business profits are not the only consideration in the universe. What the question boils down to for capitalists is essentially: Do you want to be the guy who smokes his cigarette and blows the smoke right into everyone's face and makes them cough? Thankfully, most business people get the problem and would answer 'no' to that question. However, there are some (mostly the born-again, Tea party variety...mostly) who would answer 'yes' or say they don't care if they make people cough by blowing smoke in their faces. They have every right to feel that way, as we are all entitled to our opinions. However, if that is how you feel, you really should get over being shocked that people treat you like a selfish moronic douchebag and try to pass laws to protect themselves from your irresponsible greed. Note to environmentalists: you'll be taken far more seriously by sensible capitalists if you avoid hysterical climate change predictions and focus on environmental impacts that actually exist.

In conclusion, climate change is not something to be concerned about as it occurs on long time scales. If it ever did occur on a short time frame, we wouldn't need scientists to tell us it was happening. Further, we would be unlikely to have caused it and even less likely to have any power to stop it. So don't wig out about a cool summer or a warm winter when you get one. Don't fret that every change in our environment is some omen of doom brought about by the evil of humans. Just support efforts to end practices we know are detrimental to our natural resources; that's the problem which actually affects us and we can do something about.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Tea Meditation (With Oprah)

I've been meditating with a group (i.e., a sangha) each Monday for about a month, and I've found the experience to be very helpful in many ways (see my post about Koan 24 of the Mumonkan). Some members of the sangha are really into Thich Nhat Hanh.

I had heard of Hanh before, but all I knew was that he was a living person who published a lot of books about meditation and Buddhism. I didn't learn more because this was enough to make me a little leery. It wasn't an objection to him personally but, as I have often stated on this blog, I'm generally leery of groups, gurus, books, and objects that I might want to join or purchase. Meditation should be all I need to find my way, so why bother with 'stuff'? In fact, such 'stuff' can be distracting and deluding by interposing itself between me and direct perception of reality.

The members of the sangha do not push Hanh, but their interest made me curious to read more about him. I learned he is a monk (and a legit one for sure), seems to have a positive purpose in his life, and certainly has a compelling history. But I was sold when I saw this interview with Oprah, where he blew me away with his ability to put into words the idea I call 'Everyday Zen' (see post). The way he describes it is so much clearer than how I described it in my post and is even clearer than the way I think about it in my head. His words helped crystallize my belief further.

An encounter with a teacher can be positive this way. It's not so much instruction as it is 'pointing the way'. Listening to Hanh speak in this interview was like that for me. That said, I'm not at all inclined to join a Hanh group, go to one of his retreats, read his books, or anything like that. As I said, doing these things feels like being pulled off the path to me, so the way I tend to feel about moments such as this is that I should simply smile thanks and continue on my way.

The full interview is also on YouTube and was fantastic from start to finish. Oprah asked really good questions.


PS: I'm not an Oprah groupie, but I love it how, when Hanh says it takes an hour to drink a cup of tea, she's like: "A cup of tea like this? One hour?"  Despite all her power and glam and self-help agenda, I always see flashes like this that tell me the down-to-earth woman who took over AM Chicago is still part of her. She's open, but she's still got moxie!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Emile Zola - 'Abbe Mouret's Transgression'

I took a break, but I'm still committed to my goal of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle. I just finished the ninth book: Abbe Mouret's Transgression. This is likely the last book to deal with the offspring of Francois and Marthe Mouret, this pairing being of especial interest in the Cycle as they merge the Rougon and Macquart lines (Francois in the son of Ursule Macquart and Marthe is a Rougon).

There are three characters from the family in this novel. The main character is Francois and Marthe's younger son, Serge, who is the abbe of the title. He takes after his mother with his dreamy religious zeal that threatens his sanity. The youngest child of the Mourets', Desiree, also figures in the story. She is a mentally retarded young woman who has an affinity for handling and breeding animals. Lastly, Dr. Pascal Rougon has a small role. What Zola tells us about him is a foreshadowing of his interest in hereditary analysis, Zola's subtext for the entire Cycle.

Like an earlier novel in the Cycle, The DreamAbbe Mouret's Transgression centers on religious themes. Also like that book, there is a fairytale quality to the plot. However, that is where the similarities end. While The Dream was certainly not Zola's strongest work, it was far better than this one. In fact, I'd have to say Abbe Mouret's Transgression is easily the weakest book I've yet read in the Cycle and the first one that was anything less than good. The plot is anorexically undeveloped while the descriptive passages, especially those depicting the vast garden called the Paradou, are tedious and repetitive. So overgrown are these passages that I found myself skimming them, even though I'm well aware Zola often uses such passages to comment on the psychology of his characters. In this novel, the psychology of the characters is obvious so such extensive exposition is neither needed nor desirable.

I also found Zola's handling of his theme to be uncharacteristically obvious and one-dimensional. Serge is a chaste priest, even though his worship of the Virgin Mary verges on sexual desire. This weird tension is an amazing construct, but Zola doesn't go anywhere with it. Zola does depict Serge's ascetic life in a run-down church and how he shrinks from the world in favor of mystical religious musings that leave him terribly out of touch with the realities of his poverty-stricken flock. As part of this, he is repelled by the livestock Desiree breeds near the church. It's as if any sense for the vitality of life and/or sexual desire has been beaten out of him. Even the setting and plant life of the area around the church reflects the impotence of religion: a graveyard, a great dead tree, and stony infertile fields.

After Serge drives himself into a kind of amnesia through his zealous adorations of Mary, he is nursed back to health by Albine, the ward of the town atheist. Albine is a young woman who has been allowed to run free without the restraint of social conventions. She does nothing but roam the Paradou, a massive overgrown garden her guardian controls. Walled-in, the garden is cut off from the rest of the world. When Serge recovers - as an amnesiac - he wanders the Paradou with Albine and experiences the full vibrancy of its life and wild fertility. He and Albine also develop a chaste love. If you haven't scented the Garden of Eden symbolism and predicted the upcoming Fall at this point, then maybe the novel will hold more rewards for you than it did for me. I found it far too obvious, and that made the upcoming 'plot thickener' of Serge's transgression all too predictable.

Even worse, while this Fall - the transgression of the title - is the critical event of the story, the moment it happens is described so vaguely that I missed it and had to go back to locate it. Of course, this might be the fault of translator: Ernest Alfred Vizetelly. He is well-known for purging Zola's text of anything that might smack of an 'R' rating. What was interesting is how Zola cast the other man of the cloth in the novel as the 'serpent' in his Garden of Eden metaphor. Serge's reawakening to the outside world leading to expulsion from the garden.

Thematically, Zola seems to be juxtaposing the fecundity of nature and life, represented by the innocence of Desiree, the townspeople, the Paradou, and the freedom of Albine, with Catholicism's repressive and ascetic 'cult of death', represented by the ghoulish art in the church and the self-abnegation of Serge. By telling the doomed story of Serge's and Albine's relationship, Zola's seems to be illustrating the impossibility of reconciling these two worlds. Serge's dreary world of death kills the joy of everything it touches, and Zola gives us scads of autumn imagery in his descriptions of the Paradou in the last section of the novel to dramatize this (which I found rather trite). He also presents the pair's unborn child as indicative of the impossibility of blending ('breeding') the two world views. It's a fine theme, but the novel just doesn't have enough plot, fully drawn characters, or raw material to do anything interesting with it. It certainly has none of Zola's usual acidic satire or horrifying psychological studies. The only thing that comes close to this is Desiree's comment at the end of the novel regarding the birth of a calf. I may be reading too much into it, but it's almost as if Zola is saying that a mentally retarded woman has more potential to engage in the fundamental fruitfulness, joy, and reality of life than someone like Serge, who has been poisoned by religion's cult of death. He can't even make this reality work when paradise and love are handed to him on a silver platter. 

Like The Dream, this novel lacks Zola's typically dark realism. However, The Dream replaced that element with a mystical tone well-suited to the novel's theme. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, Zola gives us nothing to replace his usual style. This leaves the novel feeling a bit empty and more like an exercise in descriptive writing.

As religious commentary, The Conquest of Plassans is a much better effort from Zola than this novel. More broadly, no one should start with Abbe Mouret's Transgression as an introduction to the Cycle or Zola and - unless you are planning to read the entire Cycle - I wouldn't suggest bothering with this novel at all.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mumonkan, Koan 24: Fuketsu's Speech and Silence

A monk asked Fuketsu, "Both speech and silence are faulty in being ri or bi. How can we escape these faults?" Fuketsu said,"I always remember the spring in Konan, where the partridges sing; how fragrant the countless flowers!"

Ri and bi are the inward and outward actions of the mind. We do not need to 'escape' these faults; we simply should not accept that they exist. There is no inward or outward action of the mind. There is only the mind.

I understood this while sitting in zazen during my first experiences with a meditation group I joined a little over two weeks ago. In joining, I was concerned I would not be able to attain samadhi as effectively (i.e., it would be 'bad'). To a certain extent, it is harder for me to attain samadhi in these sessions because I find myself being self-conscious or paying attention to the presence of the others. While this is 'bad' it is also 'good', because it demands from me a greater discipline of mind. So it is helpful to meditate in a group precisely for the reasons that it is unhelpful. I realized that allowing the concepts of good/bad, helpful/unhelpful into my thinking was the problem, not group meditation.

This was the key for me in solving this koan. Speech and silence are not different. Inward and outward actions of the mind are not different. Each is not good or bad. They are both...and neither. We do not admit them, nor try to escape from them. All that matters is the mind, being present in the moment. This is where there are no faults. So we do not escape these faults so much as we should refuse to shackle ourselves with them.

The significance of Fuketsu's response is that he is recalling an experience he had, namely the spring in Konan. This could be related to an experience of kensho he had or perhaps it simply evokes the idea of samadhi for him. Whatever the case, maintaining the right mindset is the path away from the monk's question.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jaime Manrique - "Cervantes Street"

I learned about Jaime Manrique through an interview in BOMB magazine, and it was a great lead. He's a wonderful writer. Manrique's latest work is Cervantes Street, a historical novel built around the life of Miguel de Cervantes who authored Don Quixote. My recollections of Don Quixote are fuzzy, so it's not necessary to know the novel to understand Manrique's piece. That said, it sounds as if Manrique interpolated structure and/or actual content from Don Quixote into his novel.

While the book barely breaks 300 pages, it evokes its world nearly as well as (usually) long works of historical fiction. Like most historical fiction, the facts are merely a skeleton upon which the author invents a good yarn with imagined (though perhaps researched) detail, dialogue, and characterization. As such, I wish Manrique had done more to describe details of setting: what were people wearing, what was the ambiance of a room, what was the character of a town. Sometimes I felt myself wanting to visualize things more, but there were insufficient details in the narrative for me to do so. I almost wish Manrique had expanded the length of his work to provide more 'canvas' with which to further develop his story, setting, and characters.

The rivalry between the two men at the heart of the book never heats up in any overtly dramatic sense, and there is little actual contact between them. While this side-stepped some potential sparks, I think the point of the novel is less about the rivalry than to contrast the life of the luckless Cervantes with the privileged life of Luis, with the final fortunes of Sancho and what we know about Cervantes place in history providing the insight into what pays off in life. What was most enjoyable about Manrique's work is that the story, the rivalry of the two characters, and even the flow of the text matches what you might read by Dumas or Sienkiewicz or other masters of the form.  Manrique can't touch them for scope or depth of characterization, but he's got the goods and if he attempted something more ambitious in scope I have the feeling he might be able to pull it off.

Overall, the strength of the plot, the energy of the language, and the overall vibe of Cervantes Street ring very true and are fantastic to immerse oneself in. I'll likely pick up other works by Manrique.