Hangover Poetry is Weird

 hungover-dog

I fell into a rosebush

More staggering than the hurt,

Was the rosebush sprouting thick strong arms

And pulling me to the dirt

 

The dirt it spoke such horrors

It filled my mind with dread

And it took me on a journey

Through the land of living dead

 

It took great pride in boasting

That all that I hold dear

Will one day rot and crumble

As laughing time draws near

 

“You’re nothing man but mine to own

Like every field and street.

And biting, gnawing, faceless pain

Is all you’ll ever meet!”

 

For an awful, frozen moment

These things I did believe

My heart it turned to rotten wood

My hands were cold dead leaves

 

I couldn’t speak against him

My voice was just a sound

My friends were all portents of pain

My love was of the ground

 

But then I burst with laughter

And this he did despise

My joy it burned his being

And he could not meet my eyes

 

“You mocking fool! You had me there!

But you don’t rule this place.

My friend she does the suffering;

My love she has a face.”

Curious Modern Martyrs

Whooow boy. Not so fast!

I could only have been about ten years old when I experienced one of the most exhausting, terrifying and fever-blighted nights of my life. Earlier that evening my dad had presented me with the computer game Oh No! More Lemmings. The object of the game is to save as many cutesy little animated lemmings from death as possible by manipulating them, and carving up the landscape of each level, in a way that leads them safely to the exit. Otherwise they would march in a line until they met their death from various perils such as falling from great height, being broiled by naked flames or plopping into lakes of liquid which bubbled and fizzed greedily for the little lemming bodies.

Sometimes one or two lemmings had to be sacrificed. I always felt most sorry for the blocker lemmings, whose job was to stand with their arms outstretched and prevent the others from walking unknowingly into danger. The others would reach the exit and survival; the blockers would remain, arms outstretched in their noble pose, until they blew up. Noble martyrs. A race which could give birth to blockers was a race worth being saved.

Thou shall not pass.

In the middle of the night, I awoke with a fever, mad with thirst and unable to move or cry out as before me, in an otherwise dark room, hung a Lemmings level with no exit. My mind manipulated the lemmings as it would if I was really playing the game. Some built staircases and led the others upwards; some climbed the obstacles they encountered; some blocked the path of the others; but there was no escape, no ultimate goal, and they didn’t know what I did. Eventually, as if their nature was beginning to alter and rebel in the face of the hopelessness, one or two blew up, then a few more. And when a sufficient number had blown up there was no more floor at the bottom of the level, so that those who hadn’t exploded were doomed, however long it took them to walk their particular route, to fall into the abyss.

In my fevered state I honestly felt pangs of grief as if I had been responsible for the death of a tribe. An entire race, I thought, and all the individuals of which it was made up, had met it’s end as I watched, meddled with the best of intentions but could do nothing to save them. There were no noble martyrs in that cruel nightmare. Only victims.

Someone, somewhere, with a sharp mind, a keen eye and a precise way with words must, at some time, have suggested that you can tell a lot about a people from their martyrs.

Christian martyrs are famous for displaying the heroic virtue needed to endure great suffering for greater good. Whether they share the Christian martyrs’ motivating beliefs or not, few people are totally unmoved by their stories.

Take a moment to think of the selflessness of Father Maximillian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of a stranger to be murdered in Auschwitz, and provided hope, in otherwise hopeless circumstances, to his fellow scapegoats through their final hours, and tell me that you don’t admire his heroism and feel a tinge of shame because you know you would never be able to do the same. Think of those at the great martyrdom of Nagasaki in 1622, who kissed the stakes they were to be burned on because they loved the opportunity to witness to the true faith more than they feared the famous spears of the Samurai, and tell me that you don’t want something of what they had in them; that their kind of strength and selflessness isn’t something fertile, something from which love and hope springs as surely as the sun still rises in the east.

I won’t believe you in either case.

Now take a moment to think about what future generations will infer about us when they look back and observe the praise and reverence we lavish upon people like Tony Nicklinson (I believe he got his wish and was murdered in the end), and wannabe Tony Nicklinsons such as Terry Pratchett and Michael Winner, because they want to make doctors and carers into murderers. The entire movement which feasts on the confused and prideful rationalizations of such people advances under the banner of compassion. But it is false compassion; behind the banner marches a snarling and despotic disgust, the disciples of which read a private script they know is too raw for their simpering public following:

“Take away the old, they remind me of the impermanence of youth! Take away the sick and feeble, I have no love spare for them because I owe it all to myself and you will not make me live for another! Take away the value of life itself, it is a counterfeit compared to the value of my will, my self-determination, my choice! The affection of others is nothing to me; I am a mighty creature, the falcon and the falconer, do not rob such a masterpiece of it’s dignity! I am the alpha and the omega because I want it to be so! If I want death you must give it to me because you mean nothing!”

What can spring from the deaths of such curiously modern martyrs except more death, disgust and selfishness? Once these attitudes become hardened what will there be left worth living for? What privation, what illness, imperfection or difference will not demand, in the eyes of rapturous self love, to be eradicated?

We need help, like the lemmings did. Who is there to save us? Who can lead us to the exit from the mad landscape we find ourselves in?

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Raskolnikov and Brandon

I finished Crime and Punishment recently. I ploughed through the Project Gutenberg electronic version of the novel (available here http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2554) on my Blackberry during lunch hours and finished it in a concerted but enjoyable Sunday afternoon reading session; the characterisation really is so strong that I felt compelled, like with all the best fiction, to reach the end and see how the plot and themes were going to resolve.

Aside from the author’s undoubted, legendary, skill, there was another reason I found myself captivated by the story of Raskolnikov: I couldn’t help feeling like I have been a little bit like him. I have never brought an axe down through a cowering old woman’s head then hacked her simple-minded, uncomprehending witness of a sister to death for good measure but I can relate, still, to the methodical planning of an act I know to be wrong; to the lofty minded rationalisation of wrongdoing, before and after the deed and to the pridefulness which cleaved Raskonlikov from his faith, family and friends.

I’m sure I’m not unique in identifying this way with Raskonlikov (er, I’m not am I?). Strong fiction relies, quite often, on characters being relatable so it’s a fair bet that this is part of the reason why Crime and Punishment is regarded as a classic of world literature.

Raskolnikov’s double axe-murder was a powerful way for Doestoyevsky to illustrate, through a well portrayed and relatable character, the struggle between good and evil in the human heart. It was not a commentary on any kind of widespread propensity amongst Russians for chopping each other into bits. I’m sure it happened but not every day on every street. Sometimes though the struggle of the main character in a book or movie relates clearly and directly to a struggle in the society in which the book or movie is crafted; the struggle of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, in Shame, a sexually explicit but far from ‘sexy’ or pornographic movie, casts light on the struggle of the 21st century Western world to cope with sexual desire loosed from sexual morality.

Brandon is a well looked after guy in his late thirties, has his own apartment and a respectable job and can hold a female stranger’s gaze without hyperventilating and telling her how wonderful she is or offering to supply her and all her friends with free drinks. This all means that Brandon can indulge, with impunity, in casual sex with willing city-slicker sluts. He takes the opportunity regularly. He also masturbates in his office bathroom as a response to workplace stress (somebody buy him a squeezy desk toy), frequents prostitutes and spends hours at home watching porn and paying for webcam whores.

By the end of Shame we get to see him brought to his knees by his knowledge of the despair and emptiness which are the only fruits of his behaviour. We are also, depressingly, left uncertain of whether he has what it takes to turn over a new leaf in response to hitting rock bottom. The real power of the movie comes from what it says  about 21st century appetites. At a time when a significant number of modern men are apparently addicted to pornography by ten years old and trendy women everywhere worry about the carbon footprint of their toasters yet cheerfully screw with the delicate hormonal system of their own bodies in the name of shagging about (‘having fun’ they call it, thinking it makes them cute), Shame is like a cold shower on a Monday morning: brutal, horrible but somehow necessary.

Unlike the superficially similar nonsense of American Psycho, Shame confronts you with the uncomfortable truth about men and women quite probably in your social circle, on your street, maybe even sitting at your computer. It does not make them look good.

Verdict on Crime and Punishment: Well aged Russian genius.

Verdict on Shame: Outstanding, sobering and grave. Maturity required.

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Seeking Truth

“There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition ”- Blaise Pascal.

Shock! Horror! Dawkins is an Unreasonable Zealot!

A clown...and a man in a funny suit and facepaint juggling bowling pins.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t love me. In fact if we were ever to meet and discuss the merits of theism and atheism in private, a conversation for which, despite selling millions of copies of his ostensibly philosophical polemic ‘The God Delusion’, he would be woefully ill-equipped for, I am quite sure he would not love me one bit. Not even if the typical moral relativist’s oft-wished-for scenario of an Earthly utopia populated by sexually liberated polygamous bisexual organic farmers were to unfold; Dawkins still wouldn’t love me one bit.

Despite this, I was the recipient this past Tuesday, as I drove down a beautiful rural road on my way to work, of a wonderful St Valentine’s Day gift from Oxford’s foremost expert on wasps: a belly laugh so deep it was almost a coccyx  laugh. He was a guest on ‘Today’ on Radio 4 (listen here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9696000/9696135.stm) in order to publicise some research carried out by his foundation which in his, to put it mildly, skewed, opinion calls into question the veracity of the claim that Britain is a Christian country. The method of the study had been to ask self identified Christians questions on various aspects of Christianity and from the results indicating, for example, that 60% of his sample do not read the Bible, he drew the conclusion that people who say they are Christian shouldn’t be taken seriously and that the results “pull the rug” from underneath anyone who claims Britain is a Christian country.

Now, Dawkins can have no real warrant for this claim unless he first of all considers what it means to be a Christian country. He seemingly takes it for granted that the philosophical outlook of a country is determined purely by the extent of knowledge, on all aspects of a particular outlook, possessed by those natives who claim to live within the prescribed philosophy of the outlook. I wonder how many factory workers in Russia in 1935 were fluent in the detail of GOSPLAN (Stalin’s state planning organisation) strategy or could have told you on the spot that ‘Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Opposition Parties’  is the title of the last chapter of Marx’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’? If the numbers were low would Dawkins disagree that Russia was a Communist country in 1935? The truth is that Britain’s culture and public institutions have been so shaped by the influence of Christian beliefs that to say that it is not a Christian country is as ridiculous as saying that Stalinist Russia was run by the Moonies.

Listen to how Dawkins never let go of his simplistic view of what determines a person’s right to identify with a particular ideology. His own stupidity backfired when the Reverend Fraser turned the tables and asked him if he could give the full title of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’. The following exchange occurred:

Dawkins: Yes I could.

Fraser: Go on then.

Dawkins: On the Origin of Species…uh…with…(nervous sigh) I can’t…On the Origin of Species…(pause)…um…there, there is a subtitle…uh, withup, with respect to the pre, the preservation of favoured species in the fight, in the struggle for life…

Fraser: You’re the High Pope of Darwinism!

The actual title (courtesy of a quick web search) is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’ and for what it’s worth I would probably have answerred only slightly more incorrectly than Dawkins. The point to take away is that whilst Dawkins’s inability to provide the full title of the book which forms the bedrock upon which his life’s work is built is hilarious, it doesn’t change the fact that he is a Darwinist. He is one of the foremost Darwinists in the world. He is also a zealot, a coward and, on the evidence of this interview, too proud and incapable a debater to change strategy or graciously concede any ground whatsoever during a debate, even when a person of severely limited capacity for observation (ie a dumbass) could tell that he’s being spanked.

The Reverend Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, handled Dawkins admirably although it was far from the rhetorical evisceration which Dawkins was vulnerable to. As the Reverend alluded to during the interview, it would of course be better from a Christian point of view for people who identify as Christian to have a fuller understanding of their faith than was found to be present in the sample population of the (flawed) study. I find it deeply frustrating to compare the comprehensive catechetical education my parents received to the comparatively uncertain and diluted religious education I received myself and wouldn’t be that suprised to find that Dawkins’s study was accurate regarding the level of knowledge among Christians. Dawkins has inadvertently shone a light on this genuinely important topic but, as is his wont, he makes outrageous claims regarding the deleterious effect of the data on religious belief and (even more so) the relevance of Christianity to the uncertain but not quite amorphous notion of British morality. Let’s hope that the increasingly invidious actions of this obnoxious buffoon inspires self identifying Christians everywhere to shore up their knowledge of the faith.

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Thoughts on ‘The Grey’

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Sit!...Lie down!

Yesterday we saw The Grey at the cinema. Before the film, I had high expectations; Liam Neeson, given his recent blockbusting successes with Taken and Unknown, surely has his pick of projects to choose from so his mere presence in the lead role, I thought, bode well for the quality of the movie. In addition, his two most recent films have shown how his imposing yet restrained and thoughtful screen presence can be harnessed to create modern action heroes, of the type who fight almost exclusively in short Krav Maga style bursts of fury and can drive a flat tired Mini Cooper through the eye of a needle, with considerable more depth, warmth and gravitas than anyone else playing those types of roles today.

The Grey, however, whilst certainly giving Neeson space to flex his action man chops, is a decidedly different type of action movie from Taken and Unknown. On reflection, the film actually succeeds at defying both the expectations of the action-movie formula suggested by the ‘Neeson versus the wolves’ advertising campaign, and the survivor movie formula suggested by the plane crashing in the wilderness element of the plot. If Taken is a wolf and Alive is a German Shepherd then The Grey is a surprisingly beautiful Husky: a more than capable cross breed of a film. The film is also beautifully shot, conveying both the awe-inspiring splendour of the Alaskan wilderness (although the film was shot mainly in Canada, I believe) and the sheer pitiless terror to be found in the same vistas.

Satisfying moments of action and peril then, are certainly present; the plot, the actors, the setting and, with a particularly unsettling alacrity, the wolves all deliver these. In one sequence, as characters climbed over a chasm on a hastily constructed improvised rope, I could almost sense everyone in the cinema holding their breath and inching forward in their seats because of the tension. The film was lifted in my opinion though by its philosophical pretensions and how well these were integrated into the whole. There was a deftness of touch which, whilst preventing the film from becoming maudlin or puncturing the tension, nudged questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life into the foreground.

Whilst not offering simple answers to such questions, the film, in my opinion, certainly comes down on the side of there being a real and significant importance to human actions, thoughts and emotions. The feeling which resonated with me powerfully afterwards was that these men mattered, that even whilst beaten and bruised unrecognisable; whilst dying with a nervous and suprised look on their filthy faces; whilst unconscious and insensible; whilst struggling weakly and pathetically in the jaws of a superior predator or, most certainly, whilst standing their ground in defiance and clinging to the smallest of hopes: their actions in the here and now, to paraphrase another film, echoed in eternity. The importance of maintaining respect for the dead is also a prominent theme, never more so than when Neeson’s character rages, with disregard for his own safety, at a wolf defiling the exposed body of a dead airline stewardess.

The film is clear too about the type of people most likely to be making the most pleasing echoes in the eternal caverns outside this mortal plane; all the characters are described in the sonorous opening monologue as ‘men not fit for mankind’ but by the end of the movie only one, the willful outsider who did not show an appreciation for love in either his present or his past, is portrayed as facing death with hopeless uncertainty.

As a final thought, the poem recited by Neeson’s character worked extremely well thematically and reminded me of the final verse of Longfellow’s ‘A Psalm of Life’:

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

What was the last movie you saw with scary wolves in it that also imparted an appreciation of poetry and had you gripping the arms of the cinema chair?

Verdict: Get it seen.

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Alguien esta jugando aqui

Someone behind the scenes of the Babylon translator was having a laugh while I was using it the other day:

Then the (possibly corpulent) boss must have come back into the room:

Still, it made me laugh!

 

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Diabolically Divided Dexter?

With half of season six already shown, it’s time for a half-time appraisal of what might be the most surprising run of episodes yet concerning the darkly dreaming, dearly devoted dark defender.

Each of the previous five seasons had an overarching theme, from the plainly apparent struggle between Dexter’s desire for friendship versus his desire for isolation which defined season three; to the more subtle commentary on the differences between the philosophy of ruthless, selfish individualism, as demonstrated by Jordan Chase, and the inclination to live for others, demonstrated by Dexter when he chose to take-up Lumen’s problems as his own. These themes unfolded throughout each series without feeling unnaturally forced. They have unfolded in concert with rather than in opposition to the plotlines within the show. Indeed, Dexter is one of very few worthwhile TV shows in which each episode contains sufficient drama and intrigue to stand on its own without requiring that the viewer is invested in a larger narrative.

When the first promotional images for season six began to circulate and it became clear that religion would be a major theme, I consciously lowered my expectations. Dexter, I thought, was about to fall flat. Despite the thematic balance of previous seasons, it was difficult to believe that such a popular show could tackle religion without blundering towards one of two extremities: a populist, tacky and disrespectful representation of religion and religious people with eye rolling plotlines to match; or a milquetoast treatment wherein the big questions remained as untouched as Vince Masouka’s styling wax. Each would have been disappointing.

No strings on me: Can Dexter become a real boy?

We are halfway through the season and I am happy to report that I have been completely blindsided by how well the religious themes have been handled.

Although initially it seemed that religion and morality would be incongruous themes within the Dexter universe, they in fact represent a perfectly organic development of all that has gone before. For all its macabre humour, attractive cubano atmosphere and dramatic plotlines the show has always been, at its dark, grisly heart, an exploration of morality. Our hero is a good guy who works with other good people but he kills and cuts up bad people and is, in a certain light, undoubtedly very bad himself. The show has maintained its audience’s interest partly because it asks us at every plunge of Dexter’s knife what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actually mean.

Another connection between religion and what has gone before was implied in a perfect Harry moment in episode four, when, as Dexter mused pensively upon the likelihood of God, he was reminded that he already speaks to an imaginary father figure. The implication of course being that whether God is real or not, Dexter has no grounds for rejecting him based on some mistaken premise of his own independence and rationality.

A large part of why Dexter works as a sympathetic character, why the audience relates to a man who commits the most abhorrent of acts for pleasure, is that Jeff Lindsay and the writers of the show have created for Dexter a number of excuses for his behaviour: he was raised to be the way he is, not by just anyone but by the beacon in blue, supercop Harry Morgan; he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother when he was an impressionable toddler; he’s socially and emotionally inept, able to pass for a regular guy only through extreme effort; he kills bad guys. All of these excuses serve to distance the character from his actions. They are his strings. In the show’s most gruesome moments, when Dopey, Dysfunctional Dexter transforms into Diabolical Dexter the audience entertains the conceit that he is suspended by these strings as a puppet of outside influences: unimpeachable and pure as the blood-soaked baby boy he once was.

I could have sworn that MOS DEF was one of the selection of phrases which pop up on my television according to which part of my anatomy accidentally bumps the remote control, but it turns out it’s also the name of a rapper-turned-actor who portrays the most pivotal character in the season thus far: Brother Sam, a reformed killer who takes Christianity to the amoral gangs of Miami and is eventually betrayed and murdered by his favourite convert. Sure, the bad guys are interesting but they’re easily dismissed as kooks. It has been Brother Sam who has provided the impetus for Dexter to ask spiritually searching questions and make moral decisions.

Dexter faced the biggest of these decisions at the ‘fork in the road’ which arrived at the end of episode six. As he stood knee deep in the surf with Sam’s killer, who had been baptised by Sam in the same waters, he had the choice of forgiving him as per Sam’s dying wish, or exacting retribution by his usual means. It proved to be too much to ask of Dexter’s incipient conscience. The resolution reminded me of St Thomas Moore’s famous quote that “the Devil, the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked”, as it was the perverse, self-satisfied mockery in the chuckling of Sam’s killer which enraged the monster in Dexter and led him to throttle the Judas-figure to death.

"When you gave me this shirt you said it was mauve but everyone says it's pink! RAAAAH!"

The spiritual subtext of the scene was strengthened as Dexter emerged from the waters and was greeted from the shore by a supremely appropriate symbol of malevolence and temptation: a vision of his dead brother Brian. Dexter is sinking further into the dark. Expect Dexter to embrace the darkness fully and become an unrestrained monster, or cut his strings and finally accept the moral weight of his actions.

I doubted season six could carry the weight of my expectations. Dear reader, I am now a believer.

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