Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Unknown“She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.” And maybe that’s just what is missing from school. Maybe that’s what is missing from our kids’ education. They should forget about so much nonsense at school, quit filling the kids’ teaching days with entrepreneurship and business and money-making activities and teach them to be honest. To be frank. To go straight to the point. To query about everything and not letting anyone dictate them what they can say/think and what not. And, if anything is not right, allow them to say it out loud regardless of its lack of political correctness… but of course, it is far easier to train the kids at being power-amassing machines (i.e. money) instead of trying to make them human beings. Plus nobody wants it. If you don’t believe me, just read any kid’s syllabus. Yes, the one ruled out by the government, the one teachers must follow regardless. And if you find in it any attention to the most humanistic aspects, please let me know.

“The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.”

“This book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.”

Welcome to a country where men are bursting with questions, where the national flag can’t reach the floor, where the national motif is in ancient greek even though nobody speaks or understands it, where there is an inverted pyramid with a glowing eye on top printed on the bank notes, where people are told that life began in 1492 when, as a matter of fact, “that was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.” Yes, welcome to a country as absurd as ours.

There is a quality in the small things (stupid for so many people, thrilling by others) that fascinates me. David Foster Wallace was a genius showing them. Vonnegut is also proving good at it: “Sparky could no wag his tail -because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was.” And this kind of small things touch me. And I don’t care whether the feeling is shared or not.

“He looked so much like a Chinaman that he had taken to dressing like a Chinaman.”

Sometimes the interesting point of some dystopias like this one is that they show you real things, tangible, present things, and they explain them to you as if they were brand new. In here, Vonnegut does it with almost everything because, as he states towards the end of the book, his intention with writing this book was that every single character in it and every single thing were equally important. And that means proper contextualisation of everything. So, he explains us the USA, the name of some well-known brands, the meaning of some swearing words, the normal size of penises, vaginas… and he does it in a cold, medical, descriptive manner: “excuse me I have to take a leak. This was a way of saying that the speaker intended to drain liquid wastes from his body through a valve in his lower abdomen.” Plus he adds pencil drawings to add up to the joke. And they certainly do.

“Almost all the messages which were sent and received in his country, even the telepathic ones, had to do with buying or selling some damn thing.” And if we should add cat videos, corny power points and fake news, we would have practically the totality of nowadays digital communication.

“I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.” Exactly, the damned combination of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, unsatisfying life with the obligation of having to live it out no matter what.

“The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.”

“In the interest of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.” And in here he is only talking about women but it is pretty obvious that it is not a one-gender thing but, unfortunately, a global disease that tends to be combined with hypocrisy and the thirst to grow socially and economically.

“Fascism was a fairly popular political philosophy which made sacred whatever nation and race the philosopher happened to belong to.”

“I had come to the Arts Festival incognito” tells us the author himself from the book. “I was there to watch the confrontation between two human beings I had created.” And the dialogue between the real Unamuno and the Unamuno character in Niebla comes to mind. And so do Kundera’s. And this constant presence of the author in the book is, maybe, one of its key points. The constant explanations, off-character and off-fiction that fill the pages with sweet irony.

“As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: they were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: it was a convenient literary deice for ending short stories and books.” And it is frightening how close to reality it actually is. And Vonnegut adds: “Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.” And what solution does Vonnegut give to this fake reality that our lives have become? “Once I understand what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other.” Any action as important as the next one. Of course this would bring chaos and confusion but “let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order.” And maybe, following Vonnegut’s train of thoughts, we would see that “there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”

“Most of the conversation in the country consisted of lines from television shows, both present and past.” 

But why does Vonnegut decide to step into this novel? Because (following his own answer) just like Tolstoi freed his servants when he turned 50 and so did Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, Vonnegut wants to “set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.” And what bigger redemption is there than this one? To get free from the ghosts (even though self-generated) that have been chasing us all our life.

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Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (Penguin)

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A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

51zbbuQw+jLAfter being asked to present a lecture on Women and Literature, Virginia Woolf said that she could talk about Auster, Brönte, and so on, but that wouldn’t be enough. There are always pendint topics. We need more than just a few names to understand the relationship between women and literature. Therefore, she decided to show the path she’s followed in order to attain a sort of conclusion on this theme (“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction“) and also point out all the prejudices and false ideas that led her to this conclusion so the audience can decide whether she is right or wrong.

She begins by stating the sexism and intolerance within the academic world. How she is being criticised for walking a path reserved only for men, how she is forbidden to access the university library because “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”

After she’s been denied access to the library of this sort-of-fake university of Oxbridge just because she is a woman, she proceeds with her research gathering information through her friends and acquaintances but, the next day, she goes to London and manages to enter, at last, into a library and properly research all the books available on the topic of women and literature. Then she fast  reaches a conclusion: all the people writing are men and they seem to be angry. Why? She asks herself. Men have all the power, they are the kings of the pathriarcal society so, why are they angry? Maybe, she wonders, when the pathriarc “insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. that was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis.” Just like whenever the rich men criticize the poor ones out of fear of the latter taking some of their money.

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”

“Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms” used to say the Duchess of Newcastle, this Margaret Cavendish who seems to be a really fascinating charachter claiming to be analised better and whom I met for the first time on Siri Hustvedt’s Blazing World.

“It is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial”.” And this idea, adds Woolf, is conveyed into fiction: “this is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”

“It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.” Following the dualist thesis of the mind (we all possess a male or female part), Woolf asks for the cooperation from both sides. To stop writing books that are only male books, only interesting to the male society, and to start writing androginous, bisexual books.

“We may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.” And that was true then as it is now. The mirage of democracy leads the poor people (both economically and morally speaking) to believe that they are granted the same rights and given the same chances as the rich and powerful ones. But, when the time comes, when ones’ conflicts collide with the others, they have to accept they were wrong. And if these poor souls have been so unlucky as to have been born as women, their chances get dimished by the thousands. Then and now. No matter how much they pretend otherwise.

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Virginia Woolf, A Room of one’s own (Penguin)

Burmese Days, George Orwell

burmese-days1“No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion IS proof.” States U Po Kyin, the arguably respectable lawyer who has managed to earn himself a social position through bribery, blackmailing and multiple debauchery.

Right from the start, then, Orwell shows us the corrution embedded in the Burmese political system. How everybody cheats and scams and how money and contacts are the only requisits in order to step up on the social ladder and get through any sort of accusation. More or less what is happening nowadays in most of our so-called modern countries.

The British imperialism at its worst, at its most racist, it is brilliantly depicted in the second chapter when we are allowed access into the Europeans Club. A club where, of course, Indians were not allowed to enter. But, suddenly, there is an article published in the newspaper saying that times are changing and Indians should be allowed access, not only to the club itself, but to the top categories of the Club, with the imaginable amount of rage, racism and cursing that such news bring amongst the Club clientele. People who are like those “Englishmen -common unfortunately- who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” People who can’t accept that their Indian slaves speak proper English because “I can’t stick servants who talk English.” Disgusting people who export their arrogance wherever they go to. And, who would’ve thought it, walking around Shanghai city centre, around the Western bars, I found that these imperialist individuals, these narrow-minded characters unable to adjust themselves to the new country they are living in, to be thankful with the people who are feeding them rather profusely are, instead, looking at the locals with hate, disdain and disgust. Apparently, they consider themselves to be much better for… who knows why. Because they have more money in their bank accounts? At least that seems to be the reason why they call themselves expats rather than what they really are: immigrants.

“We seem to have no AUTHORITY over the natives nowadays, with all these dreadful Reforms, and the insolence they learn from the newspapers.” And he adds: “they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home.” What! People asking for better living conditions? What’s happening to this world?

“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.”

“You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.” True back then, truer now. While we get drunk, stare at the footbal matches, parade on the streets to celebrate the victories of people who are not paying the same taxes as we do, kill the days sitting on the sofa checking the profile of semi-acquaintances on Facebook, fill up bars and beaches… everything is fine. Everybody is happy. But, hey! don’t you ever dare to think by yourself!

“When one does get any credit in this life, it is usually for something that one has not done.”

“Like all men who have lived much alone, he adjusted himself better to ideas than to people.”

“Most people can be at ease in a foreign counry only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.”

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George Orwell, Burmese Days (Penguin)

Sunrise, Cao Yu

425_0Second play of the famous trilogy formed by ThunderstormSunrise and The Wilderness, considered one of the classic trilogies on modern Chinese theatre. In this occasion, Cao Yu tells us the story of Chen Bailu, an educated country girl who has fallen into a downward spiral of corruption and depravation in the city.

She lives in a luxury hotel in the city kept mainly by a wealthy banker and several other men attracted to her beauty. Working as a prostitute but feeling proud of it, with the conviction that she is earning her money honestly, more than those surrounding her because, as she states, she is not stealing from anyone but making money by sacrificing her own body. Similar (even though with different reasons) to the sacrifice done by Bess in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. The latter did it for love, the former for social status and recognition.

Chen Bailu’s live is just a constant decadent party filled with visits at her room from so many different characters from the Chinese Bourgeoisie: bankers, wealthy widows, professors… a series of decayed individuals, egotistical and obsessed with money. The perfect portrait of a particular age, of a society falling down, that shows us the grand move forward Cao Yu did from his previous play, Thunderstorm. While in his first play, he focused the drama on the individual with actions close to those staged by Tennessee Williams, in this second play of the trilogy he focuses in society as a whole. The characters become archetypes, the actions reflections of social behaviours doomed to end in tragedy. But humanity is stubborn, entropy is far more present than we want to accept and, despite being falling into a deep well, humanity keeps carrying on, stuck on its lack of scruples and moral values, and unable to change by itself. We need an outsider’s push to change, and we don’t always accept it. In this case, the instigator of change is Fang Dasheng, Chen Bailu’s former friend/lover from the country who aims to marry her and take her back to the country. Thus, the conflict country/city, moral/society becomes the main point of the play. Chen Bailu is surprised by her past and reconsiders her whole life and begins to judge those surrounding her, those that spend every night drinking and playing Mahjong in her bedroom. The clear example of this change of mind is shown through the apparition of The Shrimp, the little girl who is forced to prostitute herself and whom Chen Bailu hides temporarily in her room. When she tries to save the girl, she is in fact trying to save herself. She wants to feel empathy once again, she wants to worry about other human beings, she wants to be a person again. Far from that world ruled by money, treachery and enmities.

In the second act, the action moves from the corrupted luxury of Chen Bailu’s hotel room to the real and moral putrefaction of a low brothel. Here, we meet the squalor and dirtiness that the layers of make-up and expensive furniture prevented us to see on the first act. Here, we see the reality of the tragedy. Here, they force The Shrimp to prostitute herself and we are not surprised that some of the locals of that place are the sames that we had met in Chen Bailu’s bedroom. And this striking contrast between the two acts it is necessary in order to make us realise about the meaningless of it all. Just as one of the side characters says, nothing makes sense, no one is born as broken and sunken as society makes us. There is a problem and we are the only responsible for it.

And, at the end, the long awaited sun arises after Chen Bailu’s sacrifice (once again, running in parallel with Bess’ sacrifice in Breaking the Waves), the beginning of a new life, of a new way to understand the world much more human and brotherly. All in all, enhanced by the symbolic song sang by the workers under Chen Bailu’s window, the move from the individualist life into the collective one. “The sun rises and the darkness is left behind.” 

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Cao Yu, Sunrise (Echo of Classics)

Tender is the night, F. Scott Fitzgerald

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketJohn Updike’s Couples and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a view spring back to mind once we start reading about the adventures of these group of wealthy tourists. Rosemary’s love affair, in fact, is very similar to that of Lucy and, little by little, we step into this Sunday-drenched world, full of hypocrisy and backstabbing.

“One of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.”

“All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.” Those nights that we don’t want them to end and that linger until the next day and, when we walked pass the first early pedestrians, we can’t help it but wonder about the completely different day we are having. But Cioran already told us: “Those nights in which we have slept are as though they hadn’t existed. We only keep in our memories those in which we haven’t slept at all.”*

“Tired of friends. The thing is to have sycophants.”

“Trouble is when you’re sober you don’t want to see anybody, and when you’re tight nobody wants to see you.”

“The drink made past happy things contemporary with the present, as if they were still going on, contemporary even with the future as if they were about to happen again.” The optimist power of the alcohol well drunk. The feeling of happiness and of communion with everybody that later on we spent the whole week trying to get over it.

“It’s always a delusion when I see what you don’t want me to see.”

It is rather interesting the change proposed by Fitzgerald on the second part of the book. After we had met an apathetical, almost non-existent, Nicole and having enjoyed Dick’s infidelity with Rosemary, suddenly we are told about Dick and Nicole’s love story and our perception of her changes. We get to see how they managed to meet despite all the difficulties and how they kept on together thanks to their love. We also see Dick’s preference towards younger women, of course. And, little by little, we also see the decay of the couple and, for a moment, we praise again Dick and Rosemary’s affair before we end up admiring Nicole’s strength.

“Either you think -or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.” And maybe that’s one of the key messages from the book: one must think for him/herself, act according to one’s will and not to someone else’s imposition. And then, maybe, we can get to be happy. At least, we would remain away from frustration just as Nicole manages to do at the end of the book. And that, for so many of us, may be the closest we will ever get to happiness.

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*The translation is mine

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the night (Penguin)

White Noise, Don DeLillo

91vWoLBq6VLThe curious and yet worrying image of a vast amount of station wagons packed to the top with all the items money can buy (the necessary ones and the others), open the book. With just the one page, we see the exaggeration of capitalism, the unnecessary accumulation of more and more items done by a new generation that only now begins to emancipate. And, next to them, their parents. “This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.” Crowded in the street in front of the university, dropping off their kids into the university residences, all the parents become one.

“How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain?” wonders Heimish, Jack’s son, the maximum representative of relativism in the book and the one who offers us some of the best reflections as well. How do we know that reality is real? How can we prove that we are not just brains inside a bucket as Putnam puzzled us? (We can’t) Just two pages before, after his father affirmation that it was raining, Heimish began a logical deduction to prove that, in fact, we could not be sure of it at all; maybe our sense tricked us (Descartes); our perception is only conventional, when we say “it is raining now” we don’t know what is the real meaning of “now” because “now” doesn’t exist, when we say it, it is already “before“; we don’t know whether the thing falling from the sky is rain or something else; we can’t be certain that when we talk about “rain“, we are actually referring to the same thing (philosophy of language)… an interesting deductive game that ends precisely where Heimish wanted to go: the absolute relativism.

“Television is just another name for junk mail.”

“To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, of face dying alone.” That’s why Jack (director of the Hitler’s department at his university) states that Hitler’s followers kept together and followed him unconditionally: they wanted to belong.

“The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.”

“Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and handmade disasters.” Natural selection has long ceased to be natural and become economical. I’m almost sure that there were no rich people inside New Orlean’s Superdome because Katrina had blown their houses away. Just as I am sure that there aren’t really rich people amongst the Sirian refugees.

“You reach an age when every minute of sleep is one less minute to do useful things.”

And, of course, the main topic of the book: death. And, above all, the fear of death. The anguish, the preoccupations, the panic it provokes. Sartre’s nausea. Babette attempts to water it down through experimental drugs that don’t work. Jack tries to solve it through reason, through never-ending conversations with Murray about life and death, this White Noise that chases us constantly but which we don’t always listen to. “A person’t entire life is the unravelling of this conflict.” We find distractions, occupations, be build companies, cities, empires… but they are nothing else but “gorgeous evasions” as Murray says. We look with envy at the babies because they live in the ignorance of their mortality and we wonder how do we do it, how do we manage to, despite it all, keep on living.

“A person spends his life saying goodbye to other people. How does he say goodbye to himself?”

Maybe we never manage to do it. We have become apathetical, non-believers, even those who were supposed to believe don’t do it anymore, just as the nun taking care of Jack’s bullet wound says. Believers only pretend to believe because non-believers need someone to keep on believing. But, at the end, we are all lost, waiting, as DeLillo portrays so brilliantly on the final pages of the book, in a sort of massive supermarket where, whenever the rules of the games are changed (they move the items to a different shelf) we feel lost and confused. There, we redeem ourselves temporally, diminish our fears by reading yellow magazines that make us feel, for a second, less alone and abandoned.

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Don DeLillo, White Noise (Penguin)

Hamlet, Shakespeare

Hamlet,_Shakespeare,_1676_-_0001“How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seemes to me all the uses of this world” complains a melancholic Hamlet in one of his first speeches. After the king reproached his elongated mourning for his father’s death, Hamlet feels more hurt and, mainly, lost facing the existentialist question: what’s the meaning of it all? Sartre mentions a nausea before telling us that, at the very end, it all simply finishes. Heidegger faces us to the raw ending to make us realise that that must be our force to keep on living. Cioran claimed that “We do not run towards death; we flee from the catastrophe of birth.”* And the religious people stick to after lives, lives beyond this one which, apparently, would be much better than this one (not too difficult to imagine) and through which everything will become meaningful. You can match and choose. Everyone can decide his/her own option.. But please, do not impose it upon everybody else.

“Neither a borrower, nor a leader be; for lone oft loses both it selfe and friend.”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Says Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (the side character who became main ones on Tom Stoppard’s play). He exposes the moral relativity, the ephemeral and conventional existence of ethical values, the foundations of our social contract that, unfortunately, is constantly broken depending on our needs.

And, of course: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The primary doubt about the necessity of keeping up despite everything, about the point of keeping alive after Hamlet finds out that his father was murdered and that the murderer has married his mother. What is the noblest thing to do, “to suffer the slings and arrows of outragious fortune, or to take armes against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleepe.” To follow the Christian faith and endure the torture and pain that is our earthly life hoping for a better one on the other side, or kill oneself? But, also, the existentialist doubt about what happens when we die. Are we Epicureans and accept that when we die we no are no longer and hence there is no point on worrying about it? Are we existentialists and state that life simple ends? Are we Platonists and return to the ideal world from which we should never have gone? “The dread of something after death, the undiscovered countrey, from whose borne no traveller returnes, puzels the will, and makes us rather beare those iles we have, than flye to other that we know not of.” The fear towards the unknown (as well as the social pressure because we must not forget suicide is a sin just as it is shown after Ophelia’s death when the clowns say that hadn’t she been a rich woman, she wouldn’t have been buried in the graveyard) makes us accept the pains and sorrows of what we know, our life. “Conscience does make cowards of us all.” And if they want us to be cowards, cowards we’ll be. A asleep, tamed flock hit so many times that we do not even dare to raise our head to see who is hitting us for the thousandth time.

But also, and in a meta-literary level, the doubt about the general connection between this monologue and the finding of Yarick’s skull a few scenes later. Why is it that whenever someone mentions Hamlet, we all think about an individual raising a skull while he asks himself: “To be or not to be”? Recently, I had the fortune to be part of a talk about Shakespeare, Cervantes, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and José Martí and Dr Steve Jacobi (Director of Culture at Wellington College in Shanghai and a Shakespeare specialist) claimed that, in fact, only a few amount of people read Shakespeare. And even less in the UK. Afraid of the archaism of its language, little used to having to make an effort to understand a text that it is not in plain modern English, only few britons approach the original texts. And maybe that is one of the reasons for this confusion. Of course that it is visually better to have Hamlet uttering his monologue while holding a skull, but it is not how Shakespeare intended it. Maybe the popular re-telling of it has improved the original text on this particular aspect. Maybe the general ignorance of the first text has blended the two scenes without anyone taking notice of it. Maybe at some point, some director made an adaptation of the text and chose that new version of the monologue and it was such a success that all the other adaptations have follewd suit… In any case, at the end, just like Hamlet states right before dying, in a sentence that Wittgenstein seems to adapt a few centuries later when he said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: “the rest is silence.”

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*The translation is mine

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Penguin)