(caught the water though not the fish) The Winter's Tale 5.2.82

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Year End

 

Not nerve ends

but synapses.

Not pain passed

from the periphery

to the center but a

juncture. Busy body

neurons in ant hills.

Pathways made

rich with wandering.

Such wingtips

as grow from the

rigging to fill

rib cages with

falling, with flight.

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Fabric

Scarves at Ten Thousand Villages

Yesterday’s snow walk through Highland Park was largely on the Main Street since the local businesses had made it a point to have the sidewalks shoveled. We walked into Ten Thousand Villages to ogle their collection of beautiful and unaffordable handicraft from around the world. I was admiring this set of scarves. The fabric looked warm and felt soft to the touch. To think that they are but warp and weft of proteins and fiber, but so is everything else.

Everything that is made up is fabric. In its earliest use the word fabric meant building or edifice. It also denoted the skill and contrivance to produce artifice. In a famous speech in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Prospero’s likens the great globe itself to the baseless fabric of his vision that will dissolve, fade and leave not a rack behind. The baselessness of the fabric indicates Prospero’s moment of great despair in products of human endeavor that are ultimately insubstantial. This may have had a bigger etymological impact than we realize on the current day usage of fabric as verb. Now, the only context in which fabricating is used to indicate manufacture is lies. Lies, in essence, are insubstantial. In fact, Shakespeare hones in on exactly this sense of the usage in The Winter’s Tale when Camillo the counselor finds himself unable to shake the fabric of the king’s folly. As a jealous husband and a powerful king, Leontes’ fabric of folly is grand and held upright by a foundation of faith *. In this instance, Shakespeare brings together fabric as edifice with the fabrication of folly. That the notion of building and manufacturing should be etymologically and philosophically linked to the idea of folly is not so surprising; it is a reminder that all things manufactured are ultimately subject to time and decay. In this sense, folly is the foolishness of presumption or a matter of false faith. Prospero realizes this and Camillo finds that Leontes does not. In the modern usage fabrication is folly and severed from the idea of useful productivity. The industrial revolution took better care of allaying our misgivings about how much we can manufacture and how long we may presume for it to last.

While the verb has come to exclusively denote falsehood, the noun largely only refers to cloth or textile. This attribution of meaning dates back to the eighteenth century when textile turned the engine of industry along with iron founding. Cloth became the synecdoche for fabric and fabric has become the metaphor for life.

*

I,2,551

Swear his thought over
By each particular star in heaven and
By all their influences, you may as well
Forbid the sea for to obey the moon
As or by oath remove or counsel shake
The fabric of his folly, whose foundation
Is piled upon his faith and will continue
The standing of his body.

Reflection

I like to photograph reflections on tarred roads that have films of leftover rainwater. The gritty mosaic of a metalled road made slick with water is a good combination of texture and gloss that can articulate a surprising amount of detail. This road is by the Bergen harbor in Norway. The bare rigging of an anchored vessel caught gazing upon itself was like walking into the dressing room of an unprepared moment. Not wanting the moment to turn around and catch me looking, I stayed out of the reflection and waited, brooding on the reflection.

Reflections play with perspective, loosen the hold of what we know and lead us into uncertainty: to sink, flail or catch the first straw of certain knowledge and return to the harbor unchanged. Sometimes there is an unpredictable moment of insight, a momentary reprieve from the tyranny of what we already know and see. Then it is a moment of looking down on a tarred road and a puddle with a crest fallen half-a-yacht to find a broken piece of the night sky. I picked it up and brought it back with me.

Luka and the Fire of Life: Cursing and Snapping out of Rushdie’s World of Magic

Even a cursory glance through the reviews of Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life will speak of the general dissatisfaction that readers are experiencing with the sequel of the much beloved Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie reuses many of the techniques from Haroun that sit wingless on the pages of Luka. It is not just the uncharacteristic stillness of Rushdie’s characteristic word play that makes Luka such an unsatisfactory sequel; perhaps the problem is that he planned Luka to be too exact a follow-up of an older brother’s adventures so that Luka’s adventure, although a neat theoretical companion to Haroun’s, never really comes to its own though that is precisely young Luka’s ostensible goal. The problem may also be that Haroun and Luka are children of two different generations and Rushdie’s attempt to be accurate to the pre-occupation of pre-teens in 2010 ends up perhaps as an unintended critique of a certain kind of privileged childhood that is carrying over from the Gen X to something else that has not yet come of age.

Haroun’s adventure took him to the moon Kahani, home to the ocean of the streams of stories which is the source of all stories – old, new and renewed that are told on earth. Haroun had uttered the unthinkable in a fit of unhappiness: what is the use of stories that aren’t even true? In the tale he learns the use of stories and that truth and reality are slippery fish. The real heart of the story though is the lasting enmity between the cities of Gup and Chup, silence and speech, between a grudging submission to unreasonable authority and a cacophony of voices, protests, ear shattering song and a general freedom for all kinds of speech rhyming or otherwise. Written during Rushdie’s years of exile after the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeinie, Haroun is a parable made poignant by Rushdie’s own world of stories where as a writer he was forced into silence, the Shah of Blah with his subscription to the stream of stories summarily disconnected. The cast of characters that Haroun Khalifa befriends – Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe, Goopy and Bagha the plentymaw fish, Mali the floating gardener and Blammermouth the page to Prince Bolo – are a stroke of imaginative genius that combine linguistic word play, inter-lingual puns, and cross cultural references to storytelling in cinema and literature from the subcontinent. In other words, world play and the world of play in Haroun is powerfully, politically grounded.

Twenty years after Haroun, Luka comes around with a conscious belatedness. After the first few pages, the narrator tells us that “Luka had first amazed people just by getting born” (10).  Rashid Khalifa now fifty years old is once again the “greenhorn father flummoxed by the arrival of responsibility” (10).  It is Soraya, whose return to the family had finally set Haroun’s world right again, who names the newborn and gives meaning and purpose to his life: “…we appear to have brought into the world a fellow who can turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way and make us young again. (10). Unknown to himself, Luka gets ready to battle, negotiate and know Time, for Time and Timing are of essence in storytelling (they are also important in life and living). Sounds like a recipe for a profound tale so far.

Like Haroun, Luka acquires a pair of friends who will share his adventure:  a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear (who have neither the novelty nor the ingenuity of Iff and Butt). He also finds his own sentence that he should not have spoken: A Curse. Haroun and Luka, the narrator tells us, get along very well because of the age difference. Though Luka learns many useful things from his big brother and uncomplicatedly adores him, he is secretly jealous of Haroun’s adventures and cannot wait to have one of his own. While Haroun’s quest was motivated by Rashid’s sudden inability to tell stories, Luka’s adventure comes in the form of something more serious: Rashid Khalifa falls asleep with a smile on his lips with not a hint of awakening. It turns out that the comatose Rashid’s life is slowly seeping out of him and into the life of his story double Nobodady who is also the death that inhabits the magic world of story, across the invisible boundary that Luka crosses unknowingly. Luka’s quest is to seek the Fire of Life, the most guarded commodity in of the World of Magic for it is the only thing to sever Nobodady from his daddy and bring him back to life again.

Unlike the moon Kahani which is the source of Rashid’s stories, the World of Magic is the virtual world of Rashid’s fictions, populated by well known protagonists from the world of stories and mythology but also by characters and geography imagined explicitly by Rashid Khalifa. It is also a world that presents itself as a video game, complete with increasing levels of complication, difficulty and extra lives, for life is easily threatened, nebulized and reconstituted in the video game world. From Haroun to Luka the biggest transition is from reading and hearing stories to negotiating them in a game world of “pisps and wees”. For those (old fashioned) readers, like me, who very reluctantly allow (some) comic book reading in the world of reading and think it (still) blasphemous to talk about books and video games in the same breath, the nature of Luka’s adventure inside a video game is a narrative gimmick that fails to warm the heart, “untricked by the golden save button”. In any case, in a world not his own, Luka must learn about the nature of Time.

Time is the river Silsila (full of fish called eddy) that flows through the middle of the Magic World and Haroun must go upstream, the wrong way because he has to reverse his father’s slow passing into the hands of death. Rushdie employs the technique of making literal the idiomatic even clichéd descriptions of Time. So Time is literally a river where the Mists of Time obfuscate the past and the future while the present shimmers brilliantly in front. To reach back to the mouth of this river it would be logical to take the help of memory and creatures best known to remember the most. But since memory only takes you so far and no further, Luka must find other mythical, mechanical and magical help to keep reaching further back as everything logically pushes forward. Time also attracts travelers (trapped in time, their time machines gone awry), worms (that eat through the fabric of time), whirlpools (that distort the now of here and now), loops of time (that mess up years while the El Tiempo stirs up a proper temporal tempest) making Time both unpredictable and impossible to race with or against. Luckily for Luka he finds himself a ship called Argo, memory-bird elephants and the most insulting Insultana of Ott who has King Solomon’s flying carpet and a lifetime of experiences to get Luka to the final level of the game (the last bit of the novel) which he must play alone (in the final ascent, the quest for knowledge ceases to be collaborative it seems). In fact, before long readers may realize that Luka’s quest often takes the backseat while he is taken for a ride around the Magic World.

What eventually saves the day, when Luka finally confronts the three Jos of Time: Jo-Hai, Jo-Hua and Jo-Aiga (Hindi for what is, what was, and what is to come), is Luka’s new found power to curse and the ability to snap his fingers.  Readers will recall that Haroun had saved the day in his adventure by getting over his problem of being unable to focus on anything for more than eleven minutes at a time. Haroun learns to concentrate and learning to focus on a task helps him accomplish the impossible. Most quests worth their salt are as much about the quester’s struggle with the self; a successful quest depends precisely on the ability to overcome a hurdle that is as much about an internal struggle as it is about externalized obstacles. All Luka needs to be able to do to give credit to his adventure is curse and snap his fingers. It is then that the good reader realizes why all the magic in the world doesn’t make Luka and the Fire of Life magical: the protagonist is a privileged spoilt brat who is getting his way. Again.

Prospera’s Plight: A Review of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

The trailer of Julie Taymor’s  The Tempest (2010) was as thrilling as the film was disappointing. Helen Mirren clad in a fantastic magic robe, sustaining a spectacular tempest on the point of her magic staff seemed to hold out the possibility of a brave new Tempest. If Shakespeare’s Prospero is to be recast as a woman, Prospera, surely it is because the change in gender would allow a re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most politically charged plays. The cinematic representation of Prospera’s magical effects crackled electric in that brief clip; after all, the magic in the play is a manifestation of power that informs the politics of race and gender. It seemed from the trailer that the exciting scholarship that academia has churned out in the last few years would come to bear on a slick production that boasts of a stellar cast and crew.

The film did not deliver the promise in its theatrical trailer. The point at which Taymor’s radical adaptation may have maximized in implication would have been in the film’s understanding of Sycorax: the blue eyed witch from Algiers, Caliban’s mother, the island’s original inhabitant and Ariel’s former employer. Sycorax was long seen as Prospero’s counterpoint, something the film leaves unquestioned. Sycorax is female, African; her magic is evil; she is a witch; in her death and absence, her defeat is played out by Caliban’s grudging servitude to Prospero. Prospero is a European white male; he is a scholar and practitioner of magic done right; he nurtures Miranda, and he is able to transcend and transform vengeance to forgiveness making him all sweetness and light — the justification of colonialism. Prospero’s magisterial grandness has long been deconstructed. Caliban and Sycorax have taken center stage in scholarship as the insightfulness of Caliban’s repressed rebellion has acquired a far greater degree of keenness in the face of the European misunderstanding of itself and others. The general understanding is that Prospero is not exempt from the madness and delusions that his ship wrecked enemies suffer on the island. Since Prospero’s grandness and great turn to forgiveness no longer turn the engine of the play’s appreciation, to re-imagine Prospero as a woman seems like exactly the thing to do.  A Prospera could blur the sharpness of the distinction with Sycorax and make ambiguous the nature of the power asserted on that island. Instead of assuming the colonizing politics it could reveal the politics of colonization. Julie Taymor’s film flirts with these possibilities: Prospera is referred to as a “witch” at least once in the film; the forgiveness scenes are not convincing of a change in heart in anyone; when Caliban walks away holding Prospera’s gaze at the end of the film, it is clear that he is neither a thing of darkness nor hers. Djimon Hounsou plays a compelling Caliban but it is unclear to what end.

Like Caliban’s part, there are other moments of great performance and action in the film that hang like alluring wardrobe on a line. Ariel’s performance of the harpy scene is just about the best thing in the film. It wracks up a terrifying harpy out of a watery wispy Ariel who is complete with tar dripping teeth and frightening eyes. The other Ariel related special effects ranged from campy to plain tacky especially when the naked Ariel performs body contortions just to hide his genitals. Russell Brand made an entertaining Trinculo, Alfred Molina’s Stephano is not going to be his most memorable part. Miranda and Ferdinand were poorly cast and the little out of script love song instead of Juno’s masque did not do much towards celebrating the contract of true love. Mirren’s Prospera suffered from unclear direction. Over all the film had promise and potential but it lacked a clear interpretative vision. This is an instance when bridging the divide between popular culture and academic scholarship may have been very fruitful. All Taymor needed to have done is to have hired a research assistant to read up some of the current scholarship and used the summary report to come up with an ideologically engaging and powerful statement that is already being made with the new readings of The Tempest.

On Becoming a Stream in Zimbabwe

(Disclaimer: Any resemblance to persons living or ever living is flatly denied. The characteristics of the stream in Zimbabwe have been fictionalized upon the stream’s behest.)

Wednesday last week, as a result of some special geo-spatial intelligence, Diditi became a stream in Zimbabwe. The day had been going in an expected sort of way; the usual waking up after dawn has cracked the eggshell of noon, eating lunch for breakfast, and sitting down at the desk to lower oneself, head first, into the open maw of the laptop, hands submitted to its jaw, fingertips tapping its teeth. The only thing she recalled later, while ungurgling parts of herself from gurgle inducing dipping rocks, that was kind of unusual about the morning was a deep, almost mournful, desire to get up and shower – not that she didn’t regularly enough or that it had been too long since she last performed said ritual. But still, she reminisced, she heard a call in her blood and, for once, it didn’t ask for the moistening of scotch.  She did what any person would do in her place; she ignored it and continued working on her manuscript, replying to emails and giving in to the occasional, informative forays into the serpentine heart of the internet.

It was around seven in the evening, tapping away at the teeth of her laptop, she first noticed that the world as she knew it had started becoming something quite different. At first, as any person in her place would do, she attributed the initial sensation of fluidity to a cherished sense of coherence in her writing and pressed on. Who wouldn’t? By the time she started paying attention to what was actually happening, it was too late to even say, what. She experienced what can best be described as the following three things happening simultaneously and very quickly: clicking on google maps, melting into the chair, and getting flushed down the toilet. And so it was before she could say what, the boundary between her and the world had changed forever. She was thrilling between rocks and curving her way down a landscape set in Zimbabwe. There was no doubt some excitement in the novelty of being a geographical entity, of being a place on a map rather than a listing in a phonebook, but before long she felt that mournfulness again. This time though, hydration under control, she knew it was the call of scotch. And so cutting her long course short, she returned as what can best be described in the following three things happening simultaneously and very quickly: the laptop throwing up, stepping out of the shower and closing the internet browser.

And so Diditi told the tale on many winter nights, Christmas lights twinkling in the background, whiskey glowing golden in glasses, of how she turned into a stream in Zimbabwe. What she neglects to mention though is that she still continues to be one. And if you think I am telling tall tales you can look online for yourselves; only be warned to have showered first.

A new story in Haggard and Halloo

A Slight Shift is ready for reading.