Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Romanticism and Orientalism

Image result for laszlo krasznahorkai destruction and sorrow beneath the heavens

Before talking about Orientalism, we should have a general idea of why there even is an ¨East¨ and a ¨West,¨ because these notions are artificial just as nations and their borders are. There really is no such thing as the ¨Middle East,¨ and we can also turn an atlas upside down without making any difference except for the way in which we perceive it. But for my convenience, I will still refer to societies as ¨Eastern¨ and ¨Western¨ for Asia/Middle East and Europe respectively as unified geographical identities while omitting nuances. Although understanding nuances and exceptions is crucial, they will not matter in the face of Orientalism.

Image result for asia regions by climateIf we want to look back in time for a historical perspective, Jared Diamond´s theory of geographic luck definitely plays a role into the way in which civilizations evolve. I´ll just use preexisting knowledge to generalize and oversimplify what happened throughout ten thousand years in the most condensed way I possibly can: East had better land and natural resources than the West, and auspiciousness led to differing cultures, mindsets, and foreign influences. Eastern practices were more pragmatic and led their societies to become more advanced than Western ones. As a result, the East was more generally powerful than the West, with India and China both being central to Eastern societies just as the Greeks and Romans were to us (except the former two obviously lasted much longer). However, this trend came to an end when Early modern Europeans accidentally discovered the Americas in 1492. We all know how the access to new materials were beneficial for their continued development beyond what the Renaissance brought to the table, and colonizing further West allowed them to eventually come out on top - especially when we found out how effective imperialism was. The exploits of imperialism, along with the internal struggles within India and China that happened at the worst time they possibly could (to the convenience of the West), were the final nails in the coffin for ancient Eastern cultures in their primacy. If I have been mistaken, someone please correct me.

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This is where Orientalism walks in. In Edward Said's theory, Orientalism is not necessarily the mockery of an aspect of a society within the Orient, but rather the misrepresentation, distortion, or inaccurate vision of an aspect of the Orient depending on what we are talking about. When we consider all of the uninspired depictions of the Orient ranging from Disney movies to a Katy Perry concert, Orientalism is without a doubt prevalent in our entertainment industry. Additionally, it is also prevalent in our own culture. Whenever we appropriate or shamelessly rebrand Eastern practices as our own - be it ¨yoga¨ or the many depictions of Buddha on our merchandises - we are practicing Orientalism. By extension, this is seen when the Westerners who claim to practice these typically do not know a thing about them, such as referring to yoga as a stretching/breathing exercise - when it is really a way of life in Hinduism - and not being able to name a single one of the Eightfold Paths. The consequences of oversimplifying things and using Oriental symbols for the sake of selling products is that we are desecrating things intended to require deep thinking and austerity.

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What is even worse, however, is when scholars and educational products misinform us about the East. Recently, for example, there was a video released from ¨Crash Course Mythology¨ on Youtube that covered the Hindu pantheon. It was very good, but there were two facts that it butchered. The first was that it claimed that the god Shiva has three separate consorts: Parvati, Durga, and Kali. The second was that the Lingam, an oval shaped stone, symbolizes the phallus. Firstly, Shiva's ¨three consorts¨ are three forms of the same goddess. Secondly, the interpretation of the Lingam supposedly bearing resemblance to a phallus originated from the perverted minds of British imperialists, not scholars in world religions. For most Hindus, the Lingam itself represents the energies of Shiva and/or Shakti. This type of Orientalism disguises itself in the form of facts, yet only misguides us to further ignorance of other cultures.

The only thing I felt Said missed out on (or at least from the sample that I read), he made it seem like those within the Orient are victims to Western oppression, when that was not always, if even usually, the case. Our elementary schools fail to inform us that India and China were the two world powers for quite a while. If we continue to view them as mere victims of colonialism and savagery, then our Oriental perceptions will not change for the better. For now, we definitely do have Oriental mindsets just as we have our daily prejudices.

I remember remarking in a class discussion that one of the solutions to our Orientalist views would something along the lines of ¨reading or watching works created directly from someone who actually grew up in the region¨. This is something I seriously regret saying, as there are two problems with this: the first is that we as audience members tend to misinterpret things no matter how good a work of art is. Although we should not attach things outside of a work to its meaning, we have a tendency to make assumptions about the background in which the artist is from, especially when it is not our own. If someone read Arabian Nights without contextual knowledge, she or he will make assumptions about Islam. If someone watched Raising the Red Lantern without understanding that history - especially that of China´s - does not progress in a linear manner, she or he might get the idea that polygamy is always bad or that the Chinese are indifferent to the positions of their women; in reality, even the Tang Dynasty treated women much better than the movie´s twentieth century setting did.

Secondly, and even more crucially, creators sometimes either do not always have a thorough understanding of their own culture and history or simply choose to use fantastical elements just as Hollywood directors and writers do with pseudo-historical settings in its movies. Don´t get me started with how many ninja/samurai films there are out there that make little effort to stay true to history. Being ethnically a Puerto Rican and raised as an American suburbanite does not mean that I have a developed understanding of the history of Puerto Rico or of the American suburbs. If I generated a story set in either place with my views attached to it, I might misrepresent something either on accident or on purpose for the convenience of telling a story. On the flip side, let's talk about Arundhati Roy. A few minutes of Google searches can tell us that she is entirely against the caste system. Her views are subtly expressed in her book God of Small Things. Her book does a lot to fight against Orientalism, though I don´t think it is flawless. I respectfully disagree with her political views, as do a many other Indians (albeit for different reasons). I loved it and think it is a wonderful book, but I do think she overlooks the nuanced relationships between religion, politics, and the caste system. By simplifying things, which is something that she said she wanted to avoid doing in the prologue to God of Small Things, her ideas can mislead Western and Eastern readers alike to believe the caste system has done nothing good for her society in the past. Therefore, I believe that, despite having been raised within what we consider the Orient, writers such as Roy can both potentially solve and cause problems when it comes to discarding our Orientalist views of the East. On the other hand, I think a person who has a better understanding of the history of India is the Tamil writer and literary critic Jeyamohan. But like Roy, he has a lot to criticize about the way in which modernized, urban-dwelling Indians view their own civilization. But even then, who am I to declare that one certain writer is better than the other just because one shares my views? Who can we rely on? At the end of the day, there is no established basis for what truly represents a culture. Our opinions are often flawed. If we have trouble grasping a holistic perspective of our own, then how can we trust others with doing the same task? If there is a solution to Orientalism, I honestly don´t think our contemporary society will find it.

Despite all this, the title of this post indicates that I still have not gotten to the point I want to make: that Orientalism and Romanticism can go hand in hand. In some cases, Orientalism can be seen as a dream or imagination some of us have; but it is a dream that is not tangible. It's the sort of hope that can exist in a hopeless world. What do I mean by this? Look at it from the perspective of Romanticism. While it is always misrepresentational, it can also be quite aesthetically pleasing.

Image result for orientalist paintingsImagine yourself being absolutely disgusted by the consumerist society we live in right now. Be it in Europe or in North America, our culture is highly conventional. It corrupts us, and is just hideous when you look at it aesthetically. You're tired of the people who complain about their first world ¨human rights¨ problems. Nothing seems inspiring. So where do you think is the best place is when you are in search for dignity, vastness, mystery, and ethereal beauty? Exactly. You will find what you are looking for in the parts of the world that you know nothing of except through art.

Image result for jean leon gerome paintingsAnd thus we have Orientalist art and works of literature. The paintings of Jean-Leon Gerome and the poem Kubla Khan immediately come to mind when we think of an idealized vision of the East. These works do not mock or convey an uninspired message about the Orient. They are romanticizing aspects of the Orient that may or may not exist. In some cases, they see the East not as barbaric, but rather above humankind. Think of it as when someone decides to become a Christian out of a blind hope that a loved one - who has died recently under tragic circumstances - will find eternal happiness in Heaven. This has nothing to do with whether or not there is a Heaven, for we do not know; it simply means that we should be empathizing with her or him as opposed looking down on them for blind faith.

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To some extent, there is a good reason to look towards the East for a glimmer of beauty. I would argue that this starting premise the Romantic Orientalist bases his hopes on is justified because there are clear differences between the East and the West. Some of us would much rather live in some part of the East for different reasons. After I attend four years at a university, I personally desire to live somewhere quiet near the Himalayas within India, or in the Zhongnan Mountains of China, or perhaps even in a rural community in Japan. This is because I believe that regardless of current trends of globalism, consumerism, and overpopulation, there are still aspects of the ancient world that are subtly ingrained within the way in which Eastern societies function and its individuals behave. Though I am not an orientalist, these are things that I just prefer over what the Greeks have done for Western society. However, I must acknowledge that what I love about the East is crumbling down under the dark forces of globalism.

I am not trying to defend Orientalism, as I think it is always misguided. But I am attempting shed some light on it. Romanticism and Orientalism are both movements that I have a love-hate relationship with. They can identify the problems with our modern world and generate beautiful works, but I feel that these works often lack the kind of substance and depth that older works did.

Image result for laszlo krasznahorkai seiobo there belowSo I would love to see if there is a better way to reconcile with one´s love for the East, and record its ethereal beauty so that others may know of it, while also facing the unbearable truth that it is brutally human just like our own society. As far as I know, the best instance of a person doing this is found within some of the novels written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, or at least the ones that have something to do with the mythologies and cultures of the East. They are the episodic narrative Seiobo There Below, the fictional travelogue Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, and the upcoming narrative The World Goes On. Since I have only started reading the first two, I will not pretend like I know a lot about the books´ content. However, I have noticed something about them so far distinguish them from his previously translated novels. One of the reoccurring themes throughout all of his works is how the world has been debased, and how we are at fault for the destruction and misery that we now face in a world that was once beautiful and dignified. Yet part of what makes his life still meaningful is the fact that he knows of and can still chronicle the beauty that still remains in the world. Though he is by no means a romanticist and even less an orientalist, he can go on and wax poetic about the relationship between objects such as a red-crowned crane, the philosopher Heraclitus, a statue of Buddha, Ganga, the goddess Seiobo, and their placement in the universe.

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"This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have a microphone, laptop, and this technical society – that's all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Andre Szemer├ędi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?"

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

New Girl Fake Story

One of the most popular television shows today is a CBS sitcom called New Girl. Personally I really like the show but I think it is representative of a growing trend in modern day media towards shallow entertainment. The show features four roommates in a Los Angeles apartment, and their life living together. The plot reveals many interesting personalities and flaws within them that lead to a lot of drama and problems. As each season progresses to reveal more of the story line, it ignores the fact that there are grown adults with well paying jobs living together in an apartment. It is becoming hard for me to find this show in anyway realistic, and I believe it lacks a true message or purpose other than to entertain.

I feel that a lot of comedy produced today follows a similar suit, and while it may be entertaining it is causing a decrease in meaningful television that can actually make a difference. Whether it be commenting on ridiculous social norms or influencing the current stream of news, television today is being made simpler to appeal to the binge watcher rather than to make a difference. That being said, I do not think that all comedy lacks meaning, there are still a lot of thoughtful people doing great things. But I Still think that producers should try to make shows that call different accepted norms into question and make the viewer really think about the world they live in.

Happy Gilmore Does More Than Make You Happy (Satire Post)

Arguably the best movie Adam Sandler has ever been apart of (this is not hard for him) is Happy Gilmore. An American classic which features an unsuccessful golf player who turns out to have a knack for the sport of golf. He is a natural talent and ends up doing very well in a big tournament against some very good golfers. What makes this movie funny is the attitude and culture that Happy brings to the golf course every time he plays. While this comedy is a fun to watch movie that follows a quirky but somehow entertaining guy smack a golf ball around, it also has a meaningful underlying message: Everyone has their own niche, it does not matter where you come from or who you are, you just need to get out there and find it.

Happy's golf play itself is a hyperbole of the transition of hockey players to the golf course. Many hockey players are in fact talented golfers because of the similar strokes in the respective sports. Many of the golfers that Happy ends up competing against are very rude, and use a lot of irony in their speech to bicker at Happy. There is one line where a golfer says something along the lines of "its about time", and then Happy overhears it and goes and knocks the guy out. This altercation is especially funny, but it is also the clashing of two separate sport cultures and how they handle their competitiveness. The movie does this through the ironic statement and the hyperbolic reaction of a hockey player.

A sort of hidden structure within the movie is the class lines that exist between Happy and the golfers around him. He is coming from a culture of (and may I add exaggerated) violence and toughness, to one of higher class, where people are more proper and are a bit mean with their words. Happy seems to ignore these unwritten rules of the golf community and brings his aggressive, violent, smack-talking attitude to the field. In the end not only does he win, but he also defeats the culture of the game. Despite his unusual ways, Happy was able to find something he was really good. He was able to compete without letting the ridicule of those around him break his hope and spirit.