The Price of Peace: A Review of Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s ‘The Floating Lives’ by Tini Ngatini

Tini Review

I recently came across a Vietnamese film, The Floating Lives (Canh Dong Bat Tan), which was released in 2010 by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh. Although this film is a few years old, the issues that the director addresses still feel fresh and progressive from my perspective as an Indonesian woman who teaches courses on women, gender, sexuality and religion.

The plot follows the life of man referred to as Mr. Vo, a severely broken-hearted man whose wife has left him for reasons the film does not reveal. Fate has left him a single parent and a duck farmer. By the end of the film, Vo’s son is killed and his daughter is raped by a rival group of duck farmers. The events of Vo’s life take place against a rural backdrop of equally tragic social issues: poverty, illiteracy, and violence against women and children. While the frank portrayal of these issues is common in Western films, they may still shock a Vietnamese  audience who are unaccustomed to either seeing such issues depicted onscreen or even hearing them mentioned in open discussion.

What I find intriguing and disturbing, however, are the lines that come at the very end of this film, as they seem to contradict the film’s message up till that point. These pivotal lines are spoken by Vo’s daughter: raped and now pregnant,

Nowadays, Dad and I have stopped wandering, we have quit being duck-farmers and settled down in a small village. Everyday, dad can bring kids to schools by boat and I can see him smile. I will name this child Thuong [her own future baby]. He is fatherless, but surely he will go to school. He will be joyful all his life and be taught by his mother that children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make.

The closing statement: “Children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make,” seems to negate the film’s earlier advocation of the rights of women and children by asserting that victims of adults’ mistakes (in this case, like in many other real-life cases, the mistakes in question concern those of patriarchal violence) are morally obliged to grant exemption to their oppressors, with little emphasis on the moral obligations that face the perpetrators of such crimes.

This narrative of martyr-like “forgiveness” is problematic because it seems to suggest that victims of such life-altering acts of cruelty are to simply bear their grief and pain with silent dignity, instead of using their experience as a motivation to call for societal change that could prevent similar outrages befalling Nuong’s own progeny Thuong in the future (or perhaps more disturbingly, being enacted by him).

How are we to make sense of this apparent contradiction? Are we to read this line as an adult’s voice projected into the child character Nuong? If this is the case, then the film’s earlier advocacy of liberation from patriarchal violence is overshadowed by its recognition of the insurmountable problems preventing achievement of this goal.

The event of forgiveness in this example – the fictional character Nuong, lead me to think about the conditional forgiveness Jankelevitch discussed in Forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness requires the conditions remorse and/or a request for forgiveness on the part of the wrongdoer, as well as the promise from the wrongdoer that similar events will not happen again. In order for victims to effectively move on from a trauma, it may be necessary for additional forms of compensation such as counseling, healing programs, sanctuary or work training; to be provided by wider society. What the case shows us is the absence of expressions of remorse and follow-up actions on the part of the wrongdoer to mitigate the destructive affects of the past wrongdoing.

In this case, expressions of remorse will serve to acknowledge that what the character Nuong experienced is “normal,” rather than an attempt to expose, humiliate and/or criminalize the wrongdoer. The term “normal” here ; far from being used to play-down the seriousness of the events in question, merely means that these events, whilst horrific, are not rare or bizarre and that Nuong is not the only one to undergo such trauma.  However, such an absence of acknowledgment results in these experiences  remaining confined to the private space, unvoiced. That unvoiced status of such an experience also restricts policy makers within public and social spaces to make necessary steps such as counseling or child protection, either to mitigate the negative effects of the events on the victims or to protect other citizens from experiencing  similar trauma. In extreme cases, the absence of such acknowledgment could lead one to suppress the memory, which  to a certain degree, obstructs them from looking back into the memory itself and addressing the issue. Perhaps consequently,  the horrific experiences will continue to hover over one’s present life, conditioning their idea of relationships in general.

Jankelevitch’s idea of forgiveness could indeed be tricky because either it may remain a political performance with debatable value or, if the wronged party is indeed able to perform genuine forgiveness, an attestation to the political force of the ruling class. If, as this scene in the film indicates, forgiveness is unilateral, it further underlines the under-privileged status of groups such as women and children who are subtly forced to sacrifice their rights, including the right to remember.

Contrary to what most of us might think, inherent in the nature of political forgiveness is what actually protects that right to remember.

In order for society to properly utilize forgiveness in the case of traumatic events, I think the key is to find balance between helping the wronged party to find ways to continue with their life and giving public education to parents about topics such as domestic violence, healthy parenting and sexual abuse. That way peace can be restored without the need to sacrifice the right of the wronged party’s remembrance of their past which is, to a large degree, necessary for future life.

 

References

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

 

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

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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.

 

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

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.”

 

 

Shutu Stays with You by Anindita Bhattacharya

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence

As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”

The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…

As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.

Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.

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A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.

The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.

The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport,  in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.

Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.

And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.

Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.

The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.

That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.

That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.

There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.

The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.

The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.

Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.

Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”