Tag Archives: literature

Brave New World 2012

Everyone who has taken a basic English literature class has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were written in the 20th century and projected dystopian visions of a government-controlled, post-industrial world. The future imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four is decidedly more bleak and unpleasant. Huxley’s is still a prison where Shakespeare is banned, but punishment for dissension is merely exile to a remote island as opposed to Orwell’s having your head stuck in a cage with rats, being beaten and otherwise tortured until you are forced to admit that 2+2=5.

Social critic Neil Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.‘ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” [Emphasis added].

I think that as of 2012, we are leaning more towards Huxley’s visions, although there are echoes of Orwell such as:

Surveillance and Police State — GPS tracking through cellphones; monitoring of internet, social media and email usage (which the NSA is tracking); drones;  hidden cameras; the erosion of civil liberties following 9/11 (including the possibility of indefinite detention without trial); police brutality … there are rampant examples of a growing police state and the power of government to monitor, track and control its citizens.

Telescreens — Televisions are not (that I know of) a two-way monitoring device, but they are often constantly on in people’s houses which does have a distracting and conditioning effect. Commercials and programming sap people’s time and subtly direct them to believe and think certain things, and the mainstream media is often directed by the special interests of large corporations as well as the government.

This document has further comparisons:

1984 : Ministry of Peace
Now : Department of Defense

“Useless statistics, incorrect economic predictions, and slanted opinions polls are presented on the Evening news as ‘legitimate news’, to give people the impression that ‘things are getting better’, and that all people agree with the popular way of thinking … History is being rewritten, to conform with modern beliefs” (See Howard Zinn’s a People’s History of the United States for proof).

and

“There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed  (or threatened) on another nation to keep the military machine rolling … From Goldstein’s book – “The effect (of the atomic wars) was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped. All three powers merely continue to produce atomic bombs and store them up against the decisive opportunity which they all believe will come sooner or later. And meanwhile the art of war has remained almost stationary for thirty or forty years. Helicopters are more used than they were formerly, bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles, and the fragile movable battleship has given way to the almost unsinkable Floating Fortress; but otherwise there has been little development. The tank, the submarine, the torpedo, the machine gun, even the rifle and the hand grenade are still in use. And in spite of the endless slaughters reported in the Press and on the telescreens, the desperate battles of earlier wars, in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of men were often killed in a few weeks, have never been repeated.”

But, like in Brave New World, our current paradigm is much more benign, though fraught with insidious forces. Not through sleep hypnosis or electric shock conditioning, but by being exposed to thousands of ads per day, we are brainwashed to buy buy buy, that “ending is better than mending.” Our economy depends on large scale consumer consumption of mass-produced goods, and planned obsolescence is necessary as well as the reinforcement of the belief that the accumulation of material goods is one of life’s main aims.

While not engaging in getting and spending, we of course should be playing. In Brave New World spending time alone and in introspective, intellectual pursuits is discouraged. Deep thinking and thinking “outside the box” is grounds for exile, and high culture artifacts and classic literature is banned. Instead, empty, superficial activities are encouraged. We don’t play centrifugal bumble-puppy, but the popular entertainment of today (shopping, movies, video games, TV, YouTube, social media) sure do offer a lot of time-sucking, vacuous fluff.

And then of course, if your mindless job and even more mindless entertainment is not enough to distract you from thinking about the Why and Wherefore of it all, as well as alternate ways of living, then you can just pop a pill and feel good at all times. People who are real and fully alive either live as savages on reservations or are banished to remote locales.

Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 as a non-fiction follow-up in which he concludes that the world was becoming much like he predicted, mainly through the use of subliminal suggestion, subtle but powerful societal pressures  and prescription drugs.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1999 article called “Why Americans are Not Taught History” that references both books wrote: “For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

Our educational system is deplorable and cultivates an extremely ethnocentric worldview. Cultural norms in fashion and entertainment are reinforced through the popular entertainment of television, music and mass media, creating superficiality, homogeneity and rampant commercialism and materialism. Whether deliberately or not, Americans are being dumbed down — by the school system, by the media, by the low-brow culture and entertainment, by distracting us with shiny new high-tech gadgets, and by the large-scale use of chemicals in food, water, air and pills/Westernized medicine. If you dare to challenge the status quo, to suddenly say “Let’s stop and look at the logic of what we are doing here,” to challenge the institutions and authority figures and 9-5 schedules and the way things are, well, you’ll end up like the Occupiers. Battered, belittled and finding yourself, like John the Savage, alone and futile in your rage against the machine.

The Lady of Shalott

I once memorized this poem with my mother. It is a very mysterious, dark poem with elements of fantasy and magic. Why is the lady cursed and by whom? It is reminiscent of medieval times, and the imagery of the lonely, doomed, lovestruck Lady floating dead down the river is hard to forget. A very evocative tale from one of my favorite poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson, it seems to defy analysis. It is just a sad, supernatural tale told in beautiful rhyme. If I had to interpret it, I would say it has to do with the tragic nature of life and love itself: how we can lose so much when we choose to take a chance; the swiftness of time; the nature of regret and experience (do I play it safe or take the leap, and which is preferable); the intricacies of the human heart;  and how nothing gold — not beauty, not anything — can stay. As Edgar Allen Poe put it : “the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” Another rich, interesting poem from the mid-19th century — that my mom and I also loved — is Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market.

PART I

ON either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
          To many-tower’d Camelot;          5
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
          The island of Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,   10
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
          Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,   15
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
          The Lady of Shalott.
By the margin, willow-veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d   20
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
          Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?   25
Or is she known in all the land,
          The Lady of Shalott?
 
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly   30
From the river winding clearly,
          Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ”Tis the fairy   35
          Lady of Shalott.’
PART IIThere she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay   40
          To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
          The Lady of Shalott.   45
And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
          Winding down to Camelot:   50
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
          Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,   55
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
          Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue   60
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
          The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,   65
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
          And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;   70
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
          The Lady of Shalott.
PART IIIA bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,   75
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
          Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,   80
          Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily   85
          As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
          Beside remote Shalott.   90
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
          As he rode down to Camelot.   95
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
          Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;  100
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
          As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river  105
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river
          Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,  110
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
          She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;  115
‘The curse is come upon me!’ cried
          The Lady of Shalott.
PART IVIn the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,  120
Heavily the low sky raining
          Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote  125
          The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance  130
          Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
          The Lady of Shalott.  135
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
          She floated down to Camelot:  140
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,  145
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
          Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;
For ere she reach’d upon the tide  150
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,  155
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
          Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,  160
And round the prow they read her name,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;  165
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
          All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,  170
          The Lady of Shalott.’

When you are old

Just want to share a poem that I love … one of the few I know by heart. It’s by Yeats and was inspired by his lifelong love, Maud Gonne, whom he proposed to five times — and I think banged just once. Ah, life.

 When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Vegas Nostalgia

I wrote both of these pieces a year or two ago, soon after I moved to Miami from Las Vegas. I was feeling rather wistful for a while.

Desert Lights

I shut the blinds on the incessant, high-grade sunlight and lie down. Replaying the night before, I wallow in the remembrance of desire. I drain my Grande Mocha Frappucino, picked up at the 24-hour drive-through Starbucks at around sunrise. Finally, I sleep.

In the afternoon, I go lay out. An unwieldy older lady lumbers around the pool, doing laps. “You’re lucky if you have family in times like these,” she is telling me, referring to the tsunami-like recession sweeping through our city. “I won’t be here much longer.” She’s been laid off and foreclosed on, but I’m fine. Cash covered the carpet in my rented, brand-new, freshly built townhouse at the foot of Black Mountain, with a sweeping view of the Las Vegas valley. A giant park was once planned, but it remains a stagnant wash. The neighborhood is nearly empty, and sometimes I go into — trespass, I suppose — the vacant houses, looking for traces of the strangers who used to be there. It’s like a set piece for a movie, or a ghost town. Except with flawless peach stucco facades.

I sip some wine in the hot tub as the twilight deepens and disappears. This place is only gorgeous at night. Suddenly, I’m awash in a sea of gems: emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds. A familiar but striking panorama of silhouettes: the tall, otherworldy Stratosphere tower; the crisp pyramid with its pure beam shooting into space; the castle spires of the Excalibur, a childhood favorite.

I’m heading that way tonight. Out of suburban Henderson, where everyone has gone to bed, and onto the I-15, which sweeps around northeastward, taking you, eventually, into Utah. My exit is Sahara, up in North Las Vegas. Past the Tropicana, Flamingo and Spring Mountain, which take you to the Strip.

Richard is sitting on his couch, rolling joints, downing Red Bull, blasting Kanye West and half-watching Entourage. He’s mad at me for taking so long. He wants me to buy him a drink.

In Rain at the Palms, I lose him a couple of times. I can’t ever get him to leave. Finally were in the parking lot elevator, and he clutches his chest in pain. He’s had one too many somethings.

I take him home and he immediately passes out. I’m alone on his balcony in the warm, strange pre-dawn. There is a couple arguing on the street below; a homeless person. The corner 7-11 is open and busy. To my right is a pawn shop and bail bonds. To my left, the irresistible lights.

The Bull-Dozed Water Park of Pre-Pubescence

Time moved in a slow daze
the water park had closed last summer
not for renovation, but forever,
due to defecation
floating feces in the wave pool
a resultant mass exodus
or perhaps someone had lept from the Bonzai Bonzai
accidentally or suicidally
I recall the flashes of lime green light as I hurtled
through the Black Hole
Alanis Morisette singing all I really want
as half-naked, ungainly strangers meandered barefoot
over wet cement as if we were an ancient people
children stayed in the shallow end
our coming of age was at the other end
from the top of the slide you could see out
over the dead brown dirt and otherworldly facades
you went down so fast your back got scratched
and every ride felt like it could be your last
Dip n Dots were the ice cream of the future
pastel pink, mint green, snowflake white
melted together in a plastic cup
while you’re too young to care
how your suit makes your ass look
and whose boobs are bigger
I had a rose red one piece with ruffles
over the hips and a brightly colored floral print
that pleasantly deceived butterflies into sitting on my stomach
my cousin’s best friend Alicia would be a beauty queen
but back then she had braces
and the boys in back of us in line at Raging Rapids
told her she would only be pretty without them
at twelve I was invisible, but at thirteen even policemen called me jailbait
but where did Wet n Wild go? Forgotten like a bygone era, an adolescent fling,
a dead great aunt, and now, poor Vegas lacks its oasis.

Has our entertainment declined?

It has been several months since I have been sufficiently enticed by a movie’s trailer and synopsis to want to make a special trip to the theater to see it. Technology has advanced to the point where any special effect can be created with plausibility; virtual worlds look real and we can experience them in three dimensions.

While the much-lauded Avatar was beautifully portrayed and contained a notable message, it doesn’t leave an indelible imprint on my mind as did the more basically animated Disney movies of my youth. The “classic” cartoons I watched at five years old – Bugs Bunny, Wil E. Coyote and other Looney Tunes – seem to have more character and substance than the artfully drawn but surface shows filling today’s children’s heads.

Is this nostalgia, or is the quality of entertainment in decline?

The other day I was browsing Netflix. Again, it takes a lot for me to want to push play and stare at a screen for a couple hours. Usually I wind up watching a documentary, independent film, foreign film, or historical drama. Most movies are just so banal as to seem a complete waste of time. I came across an older film, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman and based on a play by Tennessee Williams, and gave it a try.

It was riveting. The entire movie takes place in one house; there are no car chases, no drugs, deaths or sex. No murders or affairs or alternate realities or wars. Just a family and a dying father: intelligent, dignified, nuanced, and true-to-life dialogue from characters so complex and wonderfully acted as to become real human beings. Just watching the interplay and the faces; the way the script hints at myriad human emotions, was remarkable. Near the end, as the aforementioned dying father finally comes to terms with his son (Paul Newman) at the climax of the film, I actually cried. And I hardly ever cry.

Also, and I have noticed this in other classic films like Gone with the Wind and The Long, Hot Summer (also from 1958 and starring Paul Newman and his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward) – they are inordinately sexy. Yet, the word ‘sex’ – let alone much more graphic and commonly heard words – is never mentioned. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elizabeth Taylor plays a sensual, young wife who is simply dying to go to bed with her reticent husband. You can tell by the way she looks at him and looks at their bed; and the way she says the phrase that gives the movie its title: “I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!”

What she is saying is that she is wildly horny, as is Joanne Woodward’s character in The Long, Hot Summer. But instead of being cheap and crude, their sexuality is sparkling, sophisticated and strikingly real. Their frustrations, delayed gratifications, complex relationships, morals, dreams; all create a multi-faceted, pulsating woman who is hard to forget.

Similarly, I rarely go wild over a contemporary novel. My favorites are Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; I love Goethe’s Faust and Homer’s Iliad. Of course, there are towering contemporary geniuses like David Foster Wallace. There are many amazing books and movies. I just feel like the intelligence and quality has somehow, in some way, degraded. Most of today’s “entertainment” does not challenge me intellectually or resound with my inner self; it rarely provokes thought, inspires deep emotion or stays with me in any significant way.

I myself could never hope to craft the prose of say, Dante or Byron. And it makes me wonder how malleable our mentalities are. The ancient Greeks believed that every human being should strive for arête, an excellence in mind, spirit and body. Knowledge, wisdom and aesthetics were actively pursued. And our finest philosophies and most timeless plays were produced from this matrix.

I think that the way children are educated and their environment can encourage or hinder their growth, much like how a plant flourishes only under ideal conditions. The standard public school system does not stimulate deep, creative, abstract thought as did exposing them to Latin, Greek, music, art, history, geography and other classic subjects and expecting mastery as opposed to memorization.