War is a force that gives us meaning is an extraordinary book. While simply told, it is a complex and deep meditation on the nature of war and humanity. I have never read anything remotely like it, and it feels important. It is all signal, no noise. Ultimately it is a plea to engage with and understand war and what it does to us.
Pulitzer prize winning journalist Chris Hedges spent 20 years reporting from war zones in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe (including 15 years working for the New York Times, which he was fired from for speaking out against the war in Iraq). He has a Masters in Divinity, and brings an unflinching moral gaze. He has seen much of the worst of humanity.
Perhaps most shockingly, he is not anti-war. War may sometimes be necessary, but war does not absolve us of responsibility for our acts.
Easy takeaways: the myths we are told of war are lies. The representations in film are lies. The version of war we get in the media is a lie, one which the media is complicit in, caught up in the madness, willingly servicing the myth. Hedges describes the working and importance of those myths, about war, sacrifice and glory, and about nations; how authentic culture is destroyed and replaced by myths, the destruction of memory and reality to allow war to flourish; how those lonely voice that speak out will be ostracised and suffer for it.
The experience of war is both hideous and an ongoing peak experience, for combatants and victims alike. Facing ourselves through the experience of fear and horror reveals how little we are and grants life intensity and meaning. A madness descends as the moral norms of reality are lifted. He writes of the will to die, of reconciling oneself to a senseless death, and the struggle to operate in the normal world afterwards. This is why so many returned soldiers kill themselves. This is why so many war reporters keep going back to war, chasing their own death.
Those who rise to prominence in war are the thugs, criminals and psychos, let loose in the name of a myth, who inevitably turn from the ideal and abuse their power in the most heinous ways.
In particular he confronts that this is in all of us. That when the event descends, those with the moral character to resist are very few and far between. Normal people do unspeakable things, but the aftermath for many is being psychologically and spiritually broken. The worst crimes are often committed by the militias rather than the trained soldiers.
The sheer number and nature of the examples which casually illustrate the book is where much of the force comes in. It is genuinely disturbing. We have an educated guide through hell, who quotes the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare as readily as those who have filled mass graves.
He also speaks of how we come to terms with war and heal from it; how we wake from the madness and resume normality. The process of confronting the past, and memory, and what really happened, and digging up the mass graves which reveal the atrocities we committed. In his experience, nearly everyone in wartime is complicit.
He speaks of the way we project meaning onto conflict, pick sides, and ascribe the side we support our own image and qualities, regardless of the truth of it. He speaks of the frenetic empty sex.
The only solution, of course, is love, the dance between eros and thanatos; but most crucially, to see love in our enemy, and recognise it as the same as the love in ourselves.
Incredible, complex, powerful. A deep meditation on humanity, life, and the capacity for horror in all of us. He speaks of so much more than I have covered here.
This is a book we should all be aware of, and I suspect from this review you will know if you need to read it. If you feel the call, I recommend it extremely highly.
Hedges wrote this book in response to 9-11, a warning to his nation as it entered the madness of war. He has gone on over the last decade to write a whole bunch of really right-on seeming books dealing with the contemporary issues that need to be addressed yet which rarely are spoken of at all. Check him out.
August 11, 2012
used up the rest of my 10-trip on:
Low budget post-apocalyptic sci-fi filmed in Makara. Slow, atmospheric, better than I would have expected. At times the lack of budget was palpable – had randomly caught part of a Q&A with the director on another day, and the difficulties they had in filming made sense in the final result – and much that was left ambiguous felt like budget concerns, but on the whole cool, and well worth a look. Good proof of concept that you can make a decent low end SF film here.
Sound Of My Voice
I think I am basically in love with Brit Marling, co-writer, producer and star of this film. Gorgeous, talented and smart, and into making awesome lo fi metaphysical science fiction movies. Yes, please.
Tighter and more ambitious than her excellent previous outing (Another Earth), SOMV is a really smart tale of a young couple infiltrating a cult headed by someone who claims to come from the future. All is not what it appears in the film, and all the unanswered questions are implicit and damn clever. Both films are extremely emotionally smart, and focus mostly on the character’s emotional journeys and decisions, which grants the films’s strength and grounding. Hugely recommended, and inspiring in terms of what you can do with good ideas and writing rather than special effects.
WTF. Possibly the weirdest film I have ever seen, certainly the most expensive weirdest film. I have no idea what it was trying to communicate, if anything. Sections of it are amazing, and really fun; it looks amazing, and most of the performances are really good, and the lead is certainly a very talented physical actor. But overall I found it very disengaging and distancing, and I really have no idea what I just watched. Uber-french-art-house-madness, genuinely surreal and incomprehensible. (The gist, briefly, is a guy travels around in a stretch limo going to various appointments which require him to dress and act differently and perform different roles. Exactly why, or even the reality or otherwise of any of what is happening, is never really nailed down.)
August 9, 2012
Now I am caught up and paying more attention, here goes a second volume. Quite a few of these were not finished, but well worth noting nonetheless.
Voice of the Fire – Alan Moore
Extraordinary. Set in one geographical location across many thousands of years, a fevered shamanic songline forcing us to question what is human, what remains in the subjectivity of history, and who and what we are. Savage, strange, and achingly beautiful. Moore’s first novel is perhaps his best claim to visionary genius; in the context of his remarkable body of work, that is a statement. Essential for fans. First chapter is indeed hard going.
Bone – Jeff Smith
Finally caught up with the concluding volumes of this lovely series. Partly due to the lag of years, and age, and the requirements of narrative, it seemed to lose some of its charm as it worked to the conclusion. Still totally worthy as a series though.
A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein – Palle Yourgrau
More or less the two smartest guys of the century, Albert Einstein (father of relativity) and Kurt Godel (father of the incompleteness theorem), were best friends for the last decade of Einstein’s life. What did they talk about? It seems Godel extended relativity. His mathematical proofs, never refuted, indicate two things: a) time travel is possible, and b) time does not exist. This has been basically shuffled into the too hard basket and ignored since by physics.
If that paragraph didn’t leave you thinking “Holy shit!”, then you didn’t understand it.
Need to finish this. Figure I will end up buying it. (Apparently Yourgrau also wrote another, more technical, book on this aimed at philosophers and physicists.)
My Teaching – Jacques Lacan
Grabbed on a whim. I have read a lot of “hard” or “difficult” stuff in all sorts of intellectual fields, and generally felt like I followed it, if not understood it. However, this short collection of lectures given by Lacan at the height of his fame, allegedly to general audiences, made no sense to me. They were quite funny, but other than a general sense that you can’t actually say anything about psychoanalysis, I have no idea what the fuck he was on about. Like, zero.
It makes sense that Zizek is really into him.
Pallet on the Floor – Ronald Hugh Morrieson
Small town NZ really well captured. Remarkable in that it really could be nowhere else in the world. Simple story, simply told, perhaps lacking technical grace by today’s standards, but enjoyable.
Munitions of the Mind – Taylor
History of propaganda from ancient times to present day. Excellent. Probably essential reading to understand the world we live in. Barely scratched the surface of it; another I suspect I will end up owning.
The Daylight and the Dust – Janet Frame
Somehow had never read any Janet Frame. This selection of stories is taken from across her career. Given how stunning, original, and brilliant her stories are, I have to ask: if this has been held up all along as our pinnacle, then why the hell is mainstream NZ literature so tame and boring?
Gothic High Tech – Bruce Sterling
Despite having paid attention to Sterling via blog and lectures over the years, in his capacity as an on-to-it guy tracking diverse and interesting things, I had never read any of his prose. At worst, his short stories often convey the same sense of sneering and whining as his lectures. At best they are cynical fun.
My Work Is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti
Only read one story in this. Horror maestro but not something that will hold my attention.
Magical Knowledge Vol 2 – Josephine McCarthy
The deep end, spoken of with experience. Still in progress.
Light – M John Harrison
Harrison occupies the literary end of SF which gets massive kudos from other writers who sell more. His prose is first-rate. An excellent and bizarre space opera set in contemporary earth and a far future, thematically dealing with the limits of knowledge and understanding. It is a little disturbing how good he is at writing really messed up people and relationships. Pretty darn good, but I enjoyed this less than Signs of Life.
The Believing Brain – Michael Shermer
In terms of how beliefs are created, operate in us, and their power and influence over us, his coverage is pretty excellent. In terms of applying his data to his own faith in science, and casting a skeptical eye on the history and philosophy of science, and what is evidence and why, not so good. An interesting and challenging read, regardless what your sacred cows are.
Youth Without Youth – Mircea Eliade
Extraordinary short novel.
An aging man is hit by lightning and rejuvenated mentally and physically. Each chapter leaps time and place as we trace episodes from the rest of his life. Eliade’s interests in religion, language and scholarship come to the fore, as we take a surreal, fantastical exploration of these themes, and more. Loved it, probably need to re-read it.
Eliade is a scholar’s scholar. I had read a couple of his non-fictions at vital times, but didn’t know he wrote fiction. Discovered this by chance, in the movie tie in edition to the Francis Ford Coppola film; which is a bold move given how totally unfilmable it is in any conventional sense.
General System Theory – Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Pretty interesting, and very intellectually sharp, explication of the field from the founder of General System Theory. System theory seems to have emerged as a means to answer many questions I find interesting. Would be curious to catch up with the state of the art in GS.
August 4, 2012
From Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Bill McKibben’s latest blunt assessment of where climate, fossil fuels and politics intersect:
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
August 2, 2012
Allowed myself a somewhat extravagant indulgence and bought a 10-trip to the film festival.
Here’s what I saw in the first week:
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Hands down my pick of the festival so far.
Abramovic is a 60 year old performance artist with a fairly insane back-catalog of work. (I blogged about her back here.) The documentary follows her preparing for a career retrospective show at MoMA, at which she will perform a new piece (the artist is present) which features simply her sitting unmoving on a chair facing a chair which any member of the public can sit on and look at her. She does this for three months during opening hours. The results are incredible.
An excellent portrait of an extraordinary artist, her loves and life, and an examination of what art is, what it is to be an artist, the artistic process, and by extension life itself. Exceptional, powerful, hugely recommended.
It screens twice more, once each on Saturday and Sunday this weekend. See it.
Caesar Must Die
Film of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. All the actors are inmates in an Italian maximum security jail, the idea being guys who have been involved in bloodshed and power, loyalty and treachery will bring something to a play about those themes. The film also has a meta-level of them in jail rehearsing, but is not a documentary, which makes for some weird moments. Many of the performances are excellent. Won the Golden Bear at Berlin. It was cool, but am slightly surprised at that.
Farewell, My Queen
French period piece about the last days of Marie Antoinette, from the point of view of a young woman of the court who is in love with her. Set and filmed largely at Versailles, the whole thing looks lovely. I really enjoyed it; the French seem to bring far greater depth, maturity and intelligence to their historical/period pieces than the americans or english. (Earlier in the year, the standout for me from the Cinema Showcase was House of Tolerance, another french period piece set in a turn of the 20th century brothel.)
Cabin in the Woods
Lots of fun Joss Whedon penned post-modern horror-comedy. If you are the kind of person who knows they want to see it based on that sentence, read no further. Ultimately a fun, disposable and relatively forgettable outing – much like most of what it was critiquing, only funnier, with better dialogue and characterisation.
There were a bunch of moments I loved, chief among them Fran Kranz’s final joint, a perfect Bruce Willis beaten and bloody cigarette moment. And frankly Kranz throughout stole the film.
I didn’t know about the central conceit going in. And on the whole it danced somewhat awkwardly along this level of trying to be a horror and being detached and funny and a reflexive commentary on the genre; a fun ride but something in the combination of humour and gore didn’t sit quite right with me for the first half. The third act saved a lot, though; it was where we finally largely left predictability behind; and the ending itself was amusing; it is not often you get to cheer the apocalypse. Surprised it was a giant human hand.
Occasional plot glitches, which saddened me. (Glaring one being the watchers not noticing Kranz is still alive despite the excessive monitoring showed earlier.)
Random note – it turns out Hemsworth can actually act a bit. This was not apparent from his being Thor.
Don’t have a lot to say, really, and frankly, the internet will doubtless be full of people who care far more about this than me ranting on anyway.
French animation about characters in a painting seeking their painter and travelling between various paintings in search of him. Visually pleasing, narratively slight.
Japanese top-shelf nutbar Sono Sion returns.
He was adapting a manga when the tsunami hit Japan, and he changed that movie into a commentary on Japan dealing with it, making for an oddly patriotic film about teen rage and total family breakdown. Emotionally psychotic and very funny (sort of what you wish Lars von Trier would do), utterly unpredictable in his trademark way, it is really a matter of hanging on for the ride and staring in disbelief with an incredulous grin on your face.
Definitely worthwhile, and I will happily watch what he does next, but if you are starting out on him I reckon check out his incredible (and substantially crazier) Love Exposure ahead of this.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Imaginatively told from the point of view of a 6 year old. Peculiar study of eccentrics living in low-lying land beyond the levee who refuse to leave their homes, choosing to living free off the land, works out to be an oddly magical tale on universal themes of love, death and belonging. Moving and enjoyable, it won big at Sundance and Cannes this year (I went in blind other than that fact.) Never seen anything else like it.
Planning on filling the rest of the 10-trip with Holy Motors, Sound of My Voice, and maybe Existence.