Frank is Not a Man: A Reading of the Sam Mendes Film ‘Revolutionary Road’

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Have you seen Sam Mendes’ 2008 film ‘Revolutionary Road’?

What does “Revolutionary Road” actually mean?

And what happens if you do decide on going down that road?

Where will it lead you?

 

Revolutionary Road explores these questions through following the journey of a young couple, April and Frank Wheeler. The “Revolutionary Road” is simply a road to being a “Man” which supposedly leads to a meaningful and happy life.  In the film, being that Man means living up to an anthropocentric view of mankind defined as “…the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world….[a being] who is somehow very special and superior to the whole thing [to other sentient beings].” This implies that the film understands Man as that which mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called a “hero.”

It is: “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond normal range of achievement and experience; someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” Man, to the film, is “a big deal,” or as other character Bart Pollock says, “not the second rate…not your average.”

This whole idea is Heideggerian in nature, as it originates from the Heideggerian notion of dasein which refers to human beings as the “there being.” It means, as Levinas explained in his essay “Time and The Other,” that humans achieved their existence / identity by putting themselves out in the world among other sentient beings, exploring their possibilities to do/to be this or that. “Human existence is always in-the-world and not enclosed within a subject ‘in here’ [in himself or in solitude].”  In this sense,  being a Man is thus reserved not only for men, but for humankind in general.

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Accordingly, to be a Man must be done by putting oneself out in the world among other sentient beings; to be a Man is to show up or to make yourself seen in a public and/or political space. In this sense, the putting oneself out there in the world is equal to going down that “Revolutionary Road.” What we are essentially doing on this Road is working on our interest. As revealed through the remark April later made to her husband Frank, “When I first met you, there was nothing in the world you couldn’t do or be,” the film understands interest in the Heideggerian sense as “one’s possibilities to do this or that; the ability [power] ‘to do [to be] this or that.'” This very ability/possibility to be or to do constitutes our subjectivity.

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This form of interest is, to follow Levinas, “desire for the object that I do not yet possess; desire to be/to do this or that.” We could imagine desire/ interest as that of sunlight of which orients plants movement. Just like plant, we consciously and unconsciously move toward something such as warm sunrays which invokes feeling of aliveness and we are often not afraid to make sacrifice for it.  Otherwise, we might feel unhappy in one way or another. At this point, it’s safe to say that inherently we all have interest as desire to do/to be this or that. What differentiate us eventually is the attempt/ work we do to manifest that desire/interest.

By working I simply mean doing any action to overcome whatever stands between our desire and its possible fulfillment. Working is moving toward what we desire. For those who already know what their interest is, working could mean: taking courses, doing internships, seeking advice. For those who are unsure about what their interest might be, working is likely about finding out that interest. Working, in short, is about taking chances or putting oneself outside of one’s comfort zone. It is about trying, failing, trying again.

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Working is the very principle of Revolutionary Road‘s “Man” essence, and it presents the case that the absence of this work precludes the ability to call oneself Man, as in the case of Frank whose wife sees him as not yet a Man. Viewers can find this idea in the last prologue scene, when  April and Frank are on their way back home from April’s unsatisfactory soap opera performance. Frank tries to console April and yet only upsets her more. They end up having a heated argument about their comfortable, yet jaded lives among people who are just not their kind.  The argument ends with April’s emasculating remark about Frank.

“…Listen, Goddamn it! It wasn’t my fault the play was bad…it’s certainly not my fault you did not turn out to be an actress …..the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera, the better off we’ll be……you know what you’re like when you are like this? You’re sick, I really mean that…” Frank yells in anger.

“…Oh, you don’t fool me, Frank. Not for a second. Now, you’ve got me safely in your little trap,” April yelled back.

“You’re in a trap! Oh, Jesus, don’t make me laugh!”

“Me! Me! Me! You pathetic, deluded little boy– look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch of imagination you can call yourself a man!”

Frank is not a Man in April’s view because of the absence of effort in pursuing his desires to “feel things” he revealed to April when they first met in a party in New York in 1947.

“So, what do you do?” Frank asks April.

“I am studying to be an actress. You?” she replies.

“I’m a Longshoreman……..Starting Monday though. I am starting something a little more glamorous. Night cashier at a cafeteria.”

April smiles and says, “I mean really……I do not mean how you make money. I mean what are you interested in?”

“Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour… All I know is that I want to feel things. Really feel them. How’s that for an ambition…?”

However, Frank does work hard. He is a salesman at the Knox Company and is able to support his family’s comfortable life in a nice neighborhood, such as Revolutionary Road, which is much nicer than Crawford Road. Crawford Road is, by comparison, the property agent character Mrs. Givings said, “…mostly these little cinder-block-y, pick up truck-y places plumbers, carpenters, little local people of that sort….Revolutionary Road is much nicer. Now, the place I want to show you, is a sweet little house and a sweet setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children.” Frank is a Man already from the perspective of society. He is not yet a man in April’s view.

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Such is the case because Frank does not work in the sense of putting himself out there; He does not move toward his goal “to feel things.” Moving toward light [something] that can make you visible to public eyes is seen as, at least in Levinas’ view, part of masculinity, in opposition to femininity which characterized by the moving away from being known [to hide oneself; to live a private life].  By not moving toward something that can make him be known and, subscribing to a form of private life which closely associated with labor work to meet bodily needs, Frank is considered as not yet a man.

This kind of life and job which centers around meeting bodily needs is an endless cycle that robs Man [Frank] the time and freedom “to find out what it is that you actually want to do, and the freedom to start doing it.” Within this kind of life, men’s responsibility is to provide for his family and, hence, makes it a standard of manhood. Meanwhile, women’s place is at home, not working outside. For this very reason, Frank has to “go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.” Therefore, April calls this kind of life “trap” which has “denied and denied and denied “the essence of Man as thinking being. Within this kind of life with repetitive jobs as wife and salesman at Knox, Man do not need to think if only because there is a procedure/ rule/principle to follow already, both in workplace and society in general.

In this sense, Man becomes like automata, or at least Man who are jaded, who have eyes yet see not; ears that hear not and; hearts that neither feel nor understand,” as National Geographic host Jason Silva puts it. April sees that this kind of life with all material achievements holds them back to be  “a big deal” and “to live a life as if it matters.” Thus, she thinks the solution is to sell the house and to use their savings to move somewhere else “worth-living,” conducive for their goal to be a Man. In that place Frank will be reading and studying and April will work. Such a place, in their case, is Paris.

At this point, the realization on the part of April – and later Frank about their current life and the decision to move to Paris constitute the first of three phases that make up the heroic journey to be a Man [or the Revolutionary Road]. This first stage is known as the departure, the separation from, the breaking up with the present/current self, situation, habit, people, achievement and other things in it.  Great Man such as Buddha, Gautama and Muhammad also took this move. The Buddha, who was prince Siddharta, left his palace life, his wife, his son, his beloved parent to meditate in the forest. Muhammad left his beloved homeland Mecca and uncle to migrate to Medina. Or, if we look back at our lives, we can see this move as well. May be in the form of leaving old habit in order to develop the new one.  At this point, we can see that leaving is a form of sacrificing things and people dear to us.  And in all those leaving moves, pain is inevitable. It’s painful because it’s part of us that we leave behind and, it is more painful when it results in nothing.  It is for the very sudden break up with the past and things close to us which makes the road revolutionary. In addition, this leaving that we must continuously do, which often result in nothing which is what make the road is  also known as “the path of despair.”

One simple pain exemplified in the film is the contempt and mockery from Frank’s and April’s neighbors and co—worker when they told them the news about moving to Paris. “I’m moving to Paris.” said Frank. “Right. And I’m moving to Tangiers,” his co-worker Jack responded.  Meanwhile, their neighbors, a couple Milly and Sheeb discuss that news, “I think this whole plan sounds a little immature……I mean what kind of man is going to sit around in his bathrobe all day picking his nose while his wife goes out and works?” We are all familiar with it and have encountered it in one way or another. The courage to leave place, habit, person for another place or habit which potentially elevates us is a heroic act. Yet it is not the last heroic act one must perform in this Revolutionary Road. More heroic acts, and challenges are available in the next stage of heroic journey, that is in the liminal space.

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By giving up their stifling life, April and Frank are leaving the center of society and automatically enter into the next stage, that is the liminal space. A space which is often known as an underworld characterized by uncertainty, fear, the unknown and confusion and others. Liminal space is then synonymous with death event, the decisive moment in which philosopher Bataille claims, “Man is dying while watching themselves doing it”; it is when “everything seems to be effortlessly sinking into nothingness, crumbles and we catch ourselves sobbing and reaching out for help,” wrote Blanchot and Levinas.

This stage and all its difficulty is an inevitable result of the decision.  Campbell said in his talk with Bill Moyers, “if you are not eligible for this place into which you put yourself, it’s going to be…. a real mess. But, if you are eligible, it can be a glory that will give you a life that is yours, in your own way.” In other words, if we manage to survive the death event, we will come out as a better person and, sometimes we can even transform painful experience into “something tangible” which benefits other people.  This shapes the definition of what it means to live a fulfilling life.

This “something tangible” or being “a better person” is supposedly something that differentiates us from each other and, thus, orients us to which part of society [spot] within humanity we belong.  This being part of certain group within human world is equal to having social existence, whatever that group could be. In addition, if this “something tangible” or “better person” quality benefits people’s lives, it may allow us to be Man in the way the film understands as “being a big deal, not the second rate.”

The key to survive this liminal space is, to follow Hegel, by “looking at the negative [death event] in the face and tarrying with it,” which I understood as doing anything in our power to elevate ourselves from the situation, including asking for help from the Other. Be it the Other as God or other fellow human being, such help is likely to be around if only because in liminal space we will likely meet people. People “who’ve been out there…who might be able to offer help,” Campbell explained.

The liminal stage is presented in the film when Frank found out that April is unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and he has job promotion to be part of special sales team. They see the pregnancy as a possible stumbling block to their Paris plan. April secretly bought a rubber syringe because she plans to self-abort the baby. Frank opposes that plan and starts to throw the job promotion on the table.

“What the hell are you going to do with this?” Frank asked as he holds up the rubber.

“Look, you really are being a little  melodramatic about the whole thing. I had a friend in school who did it twice. As long it’s done in the first twelve weeks. It’s fine….so tell me that we can have the baby in Paris, Frank.”

“We can’t have the baby in Paris…” Frank said.

At the end, the Paris plan was cancelled because Frank was afraid of not having enough money in Paris to raise the baby. “Suppose we just say that people anywhere aren’t very well advised to have babies unless they can afford them,” Frank answered the question as to why they cancelled the Paris plan. To see it from Campbell’s view, this financial insecurity is a form of economic temptation which was common in all heroic journeys in the past. Muslim prophet Muhammad, for instance, underwent years of embargo from his opponents. Fortunately, he survived it. But, Frank, in this case, yields to that temptation. People like  April and John see Frank’s decision as incapability to overcome comfort zone, as not having the backbone “to live the life you want,” as not showing up. He is seen as “hiding behind that maternity dress [in the sense that]….making babies [and being able to provide material support as ]… Big family man is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls [that he is a man].” It is because, to them, “money’s always a good reason…But it’s hardly ever the real reason..”

April couldn’t accept the decision and attempted to self-abort the baby and died in the attempt. Frank then moved to the city and just dedicated his life for work and his two children.

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At this point, we can say that the last stage of the journey, that is the return, a return from underworld/liminal space to world, is a sad one. A “real mess,” to use Campbell’s words. April died, and Frank isolated himself from people he knew.  And I guess, it is not so much about the question of incapacity to be a Man as that of readiness for what they want. As Campbell pointed out, “…the achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for… The adventure that he’s ready for is the one that he gets”. I think that Frank does have the Man quality that is, to Levinas, always glimpsing at one last chance; always finding one last chance.  He did show this characteristic when he tries to convince April that the cancellation is not the end of their plan to pursue the life they want. “.. [this new job] ..an option…that’s all..we could save some money and go in more style in a couple of years…it’s possible Parisians aren’t the only ones who know how to lead an interesting life..”

Finally, this film left me pondering on how much travel, either in the form of migration or short vacation, can help us with  finding our interest and journey to be a “Man”?

Should we  give up the boring job that satisfies our basic needs and move somewhere else that looks conducive for our mission to find this passion/interest? Or, should we go with Jack’s idea to remain within the situation we barely can stand on the grounds that if there is a such thing called true passion, why aren’t we likely to find it here as it is there in that new place? Does being a Man need to be either leaving the everyday life associated with pleasure and worldly achievement or, can actually be done without leaving this system?

 

References

Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

Campbell, Joseph. Interview by Bill Moyers. The Hero’s Adventure. FIU Honors. Miami, Oct 9.2012. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hftbjHi820.

Keenan, Dennis King.  The Question of Sacrifice.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

 

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The Archaic and “Masculine” Beauty: A Review of the Film ‘White Silk Dress’ (Áo lụa Hà Đông)

Image of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing white áo dài from a postcard

“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”

 

Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress  (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.

The White Silk Dress (2006)

Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of  inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.

The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.

The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.

The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned  when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.

The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.

Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.

This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.

This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.

To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.

Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.

Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].

Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.

Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”

Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.

In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future.  Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”

 

 

Behind the Fear of Sun

One day I was driving with my British housemate to a local market in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.  I was actually sitting on the back of her bike. I do not drive motorbikes and that’s often funny to my Vietnamese and American friends because motorbikes are the main transportation here; and they seem to associate motorbikes with Asians in general. Anyway, it was spring here in Ha Noi, and it was rather sunny so we saw many Vietnamese bikers waiting in the shade of some trees at a red traffic light. The trees were a few feet back from where the traffic light stood, so that the short, sun-drenched, stretch of road directly in front on the light was almost empty.  I simply looked at the mass of people under the trees, turned away and remained silent, but my housemate, as she  pulled up to occupy the large empty space in front of the traffic light,  looked back at the people waiting under the trees, then at the largely unoccupied space either side of her and said:

I do not understand why they choose to stay far behind rather than right here where they could  move faster?’

My housemate’s question was not surprising, nor was it the first time I had heard it. I have had friends from Western countries who came to South East Asia [SEA] and voiced similar thoughts when they saw people in the street, fully shrouded in  a long-sleeved jacket, a hood and a face-mask  (or other similar apparel) during scorching, summer days. “Doesn’t it make them feel hotter?” They said. “It probably feels like in the sauna,” others remarked.

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Image by Tố Nga Trần Thị

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat.”

 I have been living in Vietnam for over one and half years, and such a scene is so common that it is no longer surprising, although early on, it certainly was. I even thought the hoodie-like fabric that Vietnamese ladies wear on sunny days was a veil, like those some Muslim women wear.  Initially I was thrilled, because I had never seen Muslims in Viet Nam and I even planned to do a small research project on them. Then a few Vietnamese friends from different regions of the country told me that wearing jackets, or stopping in the shade is a kind of sun protection. I understood it then, partly because I had seen such practices a lot during my younger years in Indonesia. Also I can assure you, that this phenomenon is not exclusively Vietnamese, nor Indonesian at all. I have seen it also in Myanmar, Thailand, and even Cambodia during my short stay there. Whilst there are various reasons of doing so, most of my Vietnamese friends say that their primary reason for doing it is to protect their skin from darkening- that is to say,  to stay white. To that end, many Vietnamese ladies will put on their jacket, or ankle-length coat, with hoodie-like fabric when they are driving or walking on sunny days; even on very hot days when it might seem more appropriate to wear fewer clothes, rather than more. This method of sun protection is by far the most common one employed; and it is interesting to note that, despite the region’s frequently hot and sunny weather,   sunscreen is not so popular in SEA for one reason or another. The fact that it hasn’t really caught on, compared to other countries with sunny climates, can be mostly attributed to its cost, its inability to cool you down (unlike a sunhat for instance) and its perceived ineffectiveness at preventing bronzing of the skin. Other popular ways to stay white include avoiding outdoor activities at the noon time. That is likely why you will find, for instance, local tennis court or swimming pool in Ha Noi, empty and cheap during these hours.

To this, my Vietnamese friend Ngoc Anh Pham replied: “The fact is that when you dress like a ninja [the jacket, hood & mask combination], it hurts less, as the sun’s rays do not touch your skin. Even if you have sunscreen on it’s still too hot to not wear a sun coat”.

So why do the people of SEA (and Asians more generally) fear the apparent curse of high melanin concentration? And; conversely, why is pale skin often considered so much more beautiful and desirable? After all, these standards of idealized beauty stand in sharp contrast to those valued by Caucasians in The West, who will frequently go to absurd and frankly dangerous lengths to obtain a golden-brown tan (the enduring popularity of tanning salons and their UV sunbeds, despite the now widely accepted evidence that they cause skin cancer, is a case in point).

Like with many other seemingly irrational and prejudicial beliefs, the current Asian preference for white skin over darker shades of pigmentation is likely to be rooted in reasoning pertaining to racist and/or classist thinking. In South Korea for example, it was reported that having white skin is considered favorable as it represents ”Western” qualities[1]. Imelda Tesalona, General Manager of Fine Nutrition company from the Philippines made a similar remark, saying that after centuries of colonization “White supremacy probably stuck and that became our standard for beauty”in Filipino culture which goes some way to account for her fellow citizens’ obsession for white skin, because “they also want to look presentable and be physically attractive just like our former colonizers”[2]. Here you see whiteness associated with beauty, refinement; and in some other cases, with intelligence, purity, and power.

The origins of such an association is debatable. My former academic advisor once told me that racist thinking could be traced back to ancient times, when untouchable non-caste status Dalits people in India, (smaller, darker people from the South)  were invaded by the northern peoples with their Vedas many, many centuries ago. Other scholars like Hannah Arendt noted in Race Thinking before Racism the appearance of race thinking in the 17th and 18th century France. She recounts in the The Portable Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, and the Origins of Totalitarianism how such race thinking is then developed into racism in the 19th century  and manifested itself in  European countries  in the same century, and subsequently brought  Asia  through the various colonial projects of those countries. The works of Frantz Fanon the Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks also explain the mechanisms by which such modes of thinking  remain in the culture of colonized countries long after they gain their independence, and continue to condition the way the people of these regions think and act.

Whilst the history of European colonialism in Asia may play a significant part in Asian’s current differing attitudes towards varying degrees of skin pigmentation, the obsession for having white skin could also be tied to class-thinking that seems to have pervaded each country in Asia long before colonialism came around. I know that adherents to the Brahmanic Religions of South Asia (such as Hindus) have practiced the caste system long before the arrival of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Moreover, in respect to Indonesian milieu, as far as I am concerned a more open type of class system than the caste system has also been around long before western colonialism came, which is still supported by many to this day. This system is rooted not in perceived notions of racial difference, but in economics. Thus, it was no surprise to read McDougall’s finding, “Asian countries look down on dark skin because they don’t want to be perceived as poor. Historically, dark skin was associated with people who worked in the fields. The upper class stayed indoors and under the shade”[3]. Thus, having whiter skin may be less about not wishing to look Asian, and more about not wishing to look poor.

Either way such a prevalent obsession for having white skin is not merely about physical beauty. The longing for white skin is more about a yearning for social emancipation; to move up to a higher social rank in relation to the prevailing class system in one’s respective living environment, or perhaps in relation to a racial hierarchy; which invariably favors white people [to put it blatantly, in relation to white people]. The end goal of this game is to attain a change in lifestyle, to assume a life which frees people from the sweat and toil of meeting their daily physical needs, and in doing so, grants them the freedom to do what they wish to do. Such an aspirational goal is normal and, in fact, advisable. However, because a great many countries in Asia have at least some history of colonial oppression (either in a traditional sense or, in a much broader sense of globalization), one needs to take into account the possibility that such an obsession with white skin could be an indication of a latent problem Frantz Fanon refers to as collective inferiority complex.

This inferiority complex, put simply, denotes a feeling of not enough: not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not worthy enough, not big enough and et cetera. Such a neurosis results from the colonial practice of systematically undermining the self-worth of the colonized peoples.  The colonizing, “developed” people,  in varying ways, constantly tell the colonized, under-developed people  that their knowledge systems, culture, ways of life, educational systems et cetera are not [good] enough compared to that of the developed peoples’. Therefore, the new, modern, and supposedly better practices are “imported” and imposed on the colonized peoples to replace those of the natives. Consequently the conquered peoples internalized such inferiority-superiority doctrines and acted them out so wholeheartedly that they become the living embodiments of such doctrine; the artifacts of I am not enough mentality, in Fanon’s terms. Such cultural trauma has not yet been addressed properly and thus, it remains with, in this case, Asian culture in Asia to this day and asymmetrically manifests itself whenever the underdeveloped people come in contact with the developed [white] people, to follow Fanon. More perniciously, still to Fanon, this internalized sense of cultural inadequacy not only affects interactions between colonizers and their oppressed subjects, but also interactions between members of the oppressed, colonized group, causing the colonized groups to, in some situations revere and favor their colonizers over their fellow victims of colonization, who are often treated with relative contempt. Such manifestation of I am not enough spreads across various aspects of life from the economy, to tourism and even to romantic relationships.

From a romance perspective, one could ponder over the phenomenon of the so-called “bule hunters” in Indonesia, in which some locals (mostly ladies) “hunt” white looking fellows to date, or to marry. This phenomena in fact has been documented in a book called Kisah Para Perempuan Pemburu Bule [Bule Hunter: the stories of women who hunt for white men] by Journalist Elisabeth Oktofani. “Bule hunter” is supposedly equivalent to the “câu Tây” in Viet Nam, a Vietnamese woman told me [ some Vietnamese girls may  refer to it as “Săn Tây”]. I first encountered it in a city in Central Viet Nam where some Vietnamese ladies I know would compete with each other for the affections of the limited number of white men. As for Ha Noi, I have had a few Vietnamese friends asked me to hook them up with my white friends. I obliged – and it regrettably made me feel like a pimp.

Are white men aware of this? I suspect that they are. At least, that’s what I have learned from a few different sources: one of my bule hunter friends in Indonesia and, a former American housemate who admitted that part of his reason to come to Viet Nam was to find a local girl. I heard the phenomena of a marked preference for Asian women by non-Asian men referred to by an American expat as Yellow Fever. A more disturbing trend is that of the sex-pat, a usually white, usually middle-aged, non-Asian man who comes to Asia for the purposes of Sex Tourism or simply for sex with Asian women. This phenomenon appears to be becoming a problem for some countries like Thailand and Cambodia; and Thailand has responded by revising their immigration laws in a manner aimed mainly at keeping away the expats who stay for sex, a Canadian expat once told me. This is possibly why Thailand now has “good guys stay in, bad guys out” signs in DMK airport. As for Cambodia, you will find some hotels in Phnom Penh will have sign on the wall “No drugs, no guns, no women allowed.”

Meanwhile, the manifestation of such the post-colonial inferiority complex in the professional sphere; (particularly in relation to teaching English as Second Language –TESL) and tourism is obvious, at least for those who have been living in Viet Nam for a while. It is not uncommon for white tourists in SEA (with the exception of Singapore) to be approached by locals mostly either for photographs, chatting, or even to be invited to stay in locals’ house, be offered free food and generally to be treated like royals. Whilst this level friendliness and generosity is of course very charming, it is important to note that it would be very unlikely for Asian tourists to receive the same courtesy. In my personal experience, there were times when I went out with my white friends to restaurants or other public spots in Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam and I noticed that locals would treat me differently from my Caucasian companions. Thus, I was not shocked when I read of a Vietnamese-Australian girl who complained of being treated different from European looking customers by the manager of the salon she visited. She ascribed the discriminatory treatment that she received to her Vietnamese appearance[1]. By the same token, I tend to be skeptical about my white friends’ remarks about hostels or other public spots on the basis of their apparently wonderful service and friendliness, until I check it for myself. Meanwhile, from TESL working setting, the inferiority complex seem to have led to some blatantly discriminatory practices. My former housemate once told me that his Korean-Australian girlfriend had difficulty finding teaching jobs because of her Asian appearance, despite the fact that she was a native speaker of English, just like any other Australian person. In a similar story, an African- American friend of mine was told by a prospective employer that they could not hire him because of his skin color. Instead, they chose to go with white-looking candidate, who’s imperfect grasp of English meant that he unfortunately needed to look in the dictionary when he talked with me. Clearly this was a decision bound to not only negatively impact upon my friend, but also upon those students who hoped to learn an English with a qualified and competent teacher.

—————————————–

By now, I hope I have made the case clearer that the obsession with Whiteness and having white skin could be the symptom of the collective inferiority complex; and that striving to be white is an attempt by Asian peoples to complete themselves by attaining something that they have been conditioned to they think they lack: be it beauty, self-worth, power or intellectuality.  This inferiority seems to have become so deeply entrenched into the social system that you could see it manifested even in children, who instinctively “hold white-looking people to be smarter than they are”, as a volunteer from the Netherlands I met in Cambodia told me. Moreover, employers in China might have incorporated whiteness into the criterion to look in their future employees[1].

For those who wish to see an end to this self-imposed, self-perpetuated and self-denigrating racism, there are no quick and simple solutions. For example, the fact that many scientific facts about the danger of chemicals substances in whitening products apparently do nothing to lessen the  popularity and ubiquity of skin whitening products is a troubling puzzle; and whilst the availability of safer skin-whitening products might ostensibly improve matters, this is a simple solution that masks a much more complex societal issue.

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Image by Tini

Instead, the first step towards finding any solutions would first require this inferiority complex to be examined   critically, Fanon advised. Only by doing so, Fanon says in White Skin, Black Masks: one is able to see that people of color’s devaluation of their fellow colored peoples is a form of self-alienation; that the fact they hold prejudices or act discriminatorily toward their fellow Asians or other colored people is actually an attempt to overcome or disown what Asian identity is perceived to represent – an “inferior” culture. It is then foreseeable, perhaps even reasonable that people may attempt to overcome such a matter by running from it towards “whiteness”, which supposedly represents all encompassing “superiority”, he adds. Accordingly, in Fanon’s terms, having white skin or actively attaining some other feature of “whiteness” in one’s life  – be it language, manner, or Romantic partner- could be interpreted as achieving this goal of casting off or masking an identity seen as gauche or inferior in relation to the dominant, white cultural hegemony. But, this is false consciousness, loaded with self-destructive notions of inferiority; and reliance upon it should be shattered using the second step.

The second step consists of coming back/returning to yourself, in Peter Berger’s terms. Be yourself, no need to change your skin or hair color, in my housemate’s terms, which I understood as finding that aspect of yourself, in your Asian-ness, that you like the most and nurture it. These aspects are your beauty features which could lift you up when you have that moment in which, Fanon described,  your ego collapse, your intellectuality shrinks, your self-esteem evaporates, and you have stopped being a self-motivated person in the presence of white fellow. After completing both these steps you will truly understand that you do not need to change your skin or hair color, or emulate white people so as to be like them or be liked by them. Or, if you do, that action is better meant for yourself. On national level, such advice could be executed through, for instance, cultivating local wisdom in relation to education or tourism projects which could help other national projects. Once this step is completed, more effective secondary solutions such as choosing healthy beauty products or even unsubscribing from mainstream beauty standards would come more easily.

 

[1] “Racism in Asia”, last modified 19 August 2017, last modified on 19 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_Asia.

[2] Pe, Roger. “Yes, Asia is Obsseed with White Skin”. INQUIRER.NET, August 25,2017.  http://business.inquirer.net/215898/yes-asia-is-obsessed-with-white-skin.

[3]Ibid.

[4]https://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/tw/spot/7050/q-cut-hanoi. Retrieved on July 28, 2017.

[5] Martin, Phillip.”Why White Skin is All the Rage in Asia”. PRI, November 2,2009.

]https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-11-25/why-white-skin-all-rage-asia.

The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film “In the Mouth of Madness”

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Understanding the Islamic concept Inshallah through Psychogeography

Image by Morag Rose.

Travel has always been illuminating for me—every place I visit presents me with experiences that shed light on things I was previously unable to fully understand. That this is so, is only natural to Mrs. Trang, an urban planner from a university in Hanoi. She introduces me to Psychogeography. Psychogeography is an urban planning concept which suggests that our geographical surroundings have a psychological impact on our emotions and, hence, our behaviors. According to Mrs. Trang, when designing a city, urban planners must first know the kind of feeling(s) they wish the inhabitants to experience. Only then will the urban planner be able to determine such things as building design to the kinds of trees and flowers to be planted. All of these elements, she says, will allow a city to emanate certain vibes—“Every city has its own personality.” These vibes are designed to affect the way people think and act. Therefore, it should be no surprise if people are to some extent different whenever they change their geographical locations.

Internationale Situationniste “Naked City” by Guy DeBord

Psychogeography is also a concept that allows me to better grasp the concept of Inshallah, a religious concept central to my own personal and professional life. The term Inshallah simply means “God willing” or “If God wills.” Muslims ought to say it, instead of “I will,” whenever they agreed or “promise” to do something in the future for another party. Looking at the practice of Inshallah from Arendt’s perspective, it appears as a social transaction of advanced request for forgiveness from the party who makes a promise, and a guaranteed release of forgiveness from the party to whom the promise is made. This social transaction of forgiveness would be important when the first party, for whatever reason, is unable to keep their promise. Such failure produces certain effects such as distrust or contempt which is, to some degree, damaging to the relationship between them. However, within the Muslim community, such negative effects are likely mitigated because forgiveness (understanding) has been given upfront, i.e. when they say “Insha’Allah” (“If God allows me to do so”).  Accordingly, the practice Inshallah offers a remedy for the damage that is not even there yet.

The practice of Inshallah does offer an insight into the irreversible and unpredictable nature of human action and its redemption, as Hannah Arendt mentioned in The Human Condition. Once a certain deed is performed, the consequences exceed time and space and are unforeseeable and impossible to undo. If the consequence is negative, it prevents the related parties, especially the wrongdoers, from moving on with their lives.  The way to free them from such an imprisonment, Arendt says, is through forgiveness. That way, the wrongdoer may release the guilt and the offended party is free from grudges. Then they will be able to interact with each other again, or at least, moving on with their lives. Finally, I should also like to say that to merely use the term Inshallah without genuine efforts to meet the promises is an irresponsible act that would also be damaging to social relationships.

One of the effects of the change in location that has always troubled me was that people are more likely to fail to meet their promises. Having many encounters of just such an experience, I lost my ability to trust people and their promises.  But, after four years of psychological, religious and physical homelessness, I think the Psychgeography concept has just dissolved the grudge I have for people and promises. It helps me to see that there are many factors at play in the failure in meeting promises including pyschogeography. Thus, releasing my resentments and people I despised become a natural and personal process which does not need the presence of remorse, nor request from the offender, and, that is I think what Derrida meant by giving yourself the gift of forgiveness. Finally, pyschogeography has shown me the intelligibility of Inshallah, which is helpful in better understanding the dilemmatic religion vs. science relationship.

 

 

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