Saturday, March 26, 2011

Forms of Education (& their discontents)

"And how could I resist the old misogynist
Who brought me up according to a fantasy?" -"Bishonen" Momus

The Greek film Dogtooth centers on the lives of three young adults: two sisters and a brother, who are being subjected to a rather extreme sort of upbringing (or "homeschooling" as netflixs not so helpfully puts it). They have been denied nearly all contact with the outside world, or what little they do receivee, such as a Frank Sinatra song, is delivered to them only through their parents' filters.  Even everyday objects, such as table salt, are given new names that sound as much nonsense to the viewer.  (Not recalling my high school Greek, I do wonder if the film contains puns or wordplay which are lost on my foreign ears).  The three children know nothing except what they have been taught by their stern, cold parents.  They are physically well kept, healthy and living in a spacious modern home.  For their exercise they have a small outdoor pool, resembling a pond more than anything else, as well as a large, lushly green yard.  This yard is surrounded, of course, by towering walls. The parents employ tales of certain death outside this gated paradise in order to keep their children at bay.

While stories of deadly cats may sound fantastic, the parents are not above including violence among their tools of discipline.  When the eldest daughter is caught with contraband videos of popular Hollywood films, her father savagely beats her over the head with a video cassette.  These foreign objects were acquired from Christina the only outsider allowed inside their home.  Christina is hired by the parents in order to service the sexual needs of their son.  (A sure sign that you are watching a European film -- no American movie would so frankly acknowledge their child's sexual drives).  That said, no consideration is given to the daughters' desires.  Nor does Christina herself seem to take much pleasure from the arrangement.  Thus, she offers a deal to the eldest daughter: "lick" her, Christina, between her legs, and the daughter will receive gifts from the outside world.  The eldest daughter, in turn, coerces her younger sister into licking her.  Late in the film, it is suggested that the youngest is about to offer a similar enticement to her father, before he wakes up and nudges her aside.  For his part, the son is shown to have no emotional connection to his partner, caring for nothing but his own pleasure, which, naturally, is what sends Christina searching for other forms of satisfaction. 

Thus, each child learns from those with authority over them, thoroughly assimilating the only power structure they know.  Deeply ingrained within this perspective is the threat of violence overshadowing the children.  Ultimately, the eldest child will attempt rebellion against this system, only, she lacks any of the tools necessary to envision a type of life different than what she knows.  Without any means of escape from the home, literally or otherwise, she turns her anger inwards, internalizing her father's stories into self-mutilation.  She may not be aware of what she is doing, however, her only act of resistance, it turns out, is self-destruction.
The singer Momus has also explored such states of minds in his work, which follow similar patterns.  First, there is his song "Bishonen" which tell the story of a boy adopted at a young age by "an old Italian bachelor."  This stepfather is obsessed with the legends of the ancient East in general, and, in particular, with the idea of beautiful youths dying gloriously.  He trains his new ward for this archetype, conditioning him with "words [which] were to cut down and to kill the muscle-bound/[And] swords to fell my intellectual enemies."  Every facet of the boy's development is controlled.  He is groomed to be effeminate in his beauty, to outshine an inferior gender of women ("charm is essential to misogamy").  When the hero protests that he wishes a female for his bride, the stepfather instead insists on a male "retainer" for his companion.
As the decades pass, the stepson, now twenty-eight, begins to gain his independence.  (It is never stated how this occurs, though, I have always assumed that his elder simply died of old age).  He settles down with both a wife and a successful job at a merchant bank.  Yet, he is troubled.  He cannot shake pangs of guilt for abandoning his stepfather's path, for failing to die young and beautiful, as he was always taught was his destiny.  Laying awake at night, while his wife sleeps, he can only find one solution: to have a son of his own, one whom would be more deserving of this great honor, and who the hero will raise "to die young/
And lay him in the grave that you[the stepfather] prepared for me."  As in Dogtooth, the father's programing remains until the end.  The cycles of violence keeps spinning, while the indoctrination of the next generation is ensured. 

 Finally, in "Pygmalism", a riff on the legend of Pygmalion, Pygmalion the play, and, presumably, My Fair Lady, there is a portrait of direct confrontation with the tormentor.  Here the singer is a creation of a certain Herr Professor Pyg.  He has obliterated any trace of her previously existence, leaving behind only what he wants her to be.  He is so entirely successful that she is left with only "memories [which]have been implanted/No ancestors you can trace/An accent from no place invented."  Here is fulfillment of all the wildest dreams of the parents of Dogtooth or the stepfather of the Bishonen: complete mastery.  This child knows nothing, but what her father has taught her, has no frame of reference outside of the teacher's.  He is her lover as well, filling her with the breath of life, as well as more sticky substances.  Simply put, she is nothing more than "a figment of his huge imagination."

Or is she?  Even within the limited knowledge she has, she can find an outlet for rebellion.  Her spirit lashes back while her hatred simmers.  At night she finds herself alone, singing the songs of conditioning he has taught her while "Cutting up with scissors/All the stupid sexy clothes he's bought me."  Unlike the daughter of Dogtooth this woman is not willing to simply turn her rage inwards, but outwards, back at her tormentor.  First she vows to prove her intellectual superiority, beating him at his own games, before driving a blade into his chest, reminding him how "the things we whip can whip us."  A bloody liberation it may be, but it remains a liberation nonetheless.

Or does it?  After the creator is dead, is the creature any better?  Is the poor soul any less scarred or haunted than the other conditioned children?  How can a figment survive outside the mind which dreamt it?  Or has she become now even more truly her father's child?

(B., if you're reading this, and I never said it before, you are so right about Grant Morrison ripping off this song for his own purposes.  You'd think then that he could at least meet his deadlines . . . ).

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" indeed . . .

And, next time, I'll try for something not quite so disturbing.
Cheers all


Friday, March 25, 2011

A Handful of Verses

So, I have been thinking over a few things, which I would like to share; I even jotted down some notes during the commute to work this morning, only now is not the time for lengthy ramblings.  Hopefully, you'll be hearing more from me over the weekend.  Until then, I wanted to share with you a poem.  It was the first piece of my verse to be published, and I would like to thank the good people at Scars for selecting it for their print magazine Down in the Dirt.  The piece may also be viewed on their website,

What I Have Learned from Quiet Americans and Incensed Brits
Embrace doubt.
Revel in questions,
While being wary of answers—
Avoiding catch-all prescriptions
& most essentially:
Ignore idealistic preachers with simple answers
                                    (for their visions always ring hollow in the end).

My fellow Graham Greene devotees are correct in assuming that my title is a reference to one of his novels.  Regardless of literary allusions, however, I hope that you enjoyed the poem.  Good luck with your Friday, and pleasant plans for your weekend.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Once more into the breach, dear friends (with Antony & Cleopatra)

"If you'd been emperor of Rome
At the age of just 15
Wouldn't you have done the same? So why then does his name
Retain the mantle of the evil
Always claimed by joyless vultures
To explain the strange allure other cultures?"
-"Heliogabalus", Momus

A couple days ago, I finished reading Stacy Shiff's recent biography of Cleopatra. Having already completed the designated "beach read" for my vacation, I treated myself to a copy at an airport bookshop before returing home. While no expert on the period, those hundred years or so around the turn from BC to AD, it continues to fascinate me both on account of the upheavals readily apparent at the time (Rome's gradual dissolution from a aristocratic republic into an autocratic empire) as well as those less so (a Jewish diaspera deeply at odds with their place in the world).  All these events would cast long shadows in the years to come.  So many dies were cast, that it is hard to resist the temptation to ponder the questions of "what if," or "if only . . ."

In her book, Schiff draws a stark contrast between the lifestyles of the Roman world, and those which Cleopatra knew in Alexandria. In Schiff's telling, the Alexandrians were a people given to luxury and ostentation, whereas a Roman prefered the plain style of his white toga. It is true that some Romans lived more grandly than others, but, they still paid lip service to the ideals of society. Antony did not, chosing to demonstrate his preferences grandly. It did not help his cause that he did so while reclinging beside a soverign female, as the Alexandrains granted more rights and respect to their women than in Antony's homeland. (The current Italian government is not the first to approach women as interchangable sex objects). In the eyes of his countrymen, Antony had abandoned his martial calling for more effete, less valorous pursuits.  Thus, the general who once boasted of his descent from Hercules, now ran about town in the guise of Dionysius.  It would seem that the conniving foriegn sirens of the first century were no less unmanning than the lulling idles of the nineteenth century opium den or geisha house . . .       
It was while reading these sections of Schiff's book, reflections rattling around my mind, that I recalled the song "Heliogabalus" by the Scottish musican, artist, et al Momus. 

I first became aware of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus through a short story by Neil Gaiman, which I read in high school.  The piece, a musing on Gaiman's experience in the English public school system, Heliogabalus and Oscar Wilde made a strong impression on me at the time, and has stayed with me over the years.  (It probably helped that at the time I was quite fond of both Wilde and Gaiman, which, I guess, just goes to show that as a teenager I prefered my narratives dripping with wit, while dressed up in goth and legend).  Several years later, I bought my first Momus album, including the song "Heliogabalus," in which the singer defends the young emperor against the standard historical line of his rule being the nadir of Roman imperial debuachery.  Now, some of this is tongue in cheek, and I, for one, do not intend to absolve Heliogabalus of all his (mis)deeds.  However, there are two legitimate psychological observations that deserve our attention.  First of all, if you had grown up in the hothouse of a late Roman imperial family, before ascending the thorne at age fifteen, how firm would have been your bearings?  I suspect that the young man was already deeply disturbed by his surroundings before anyone handed him a sceptor.  More important for the present discussion, is the other idea expressed in the above quote. There is a very human tendacy to take all that we fear, that unsettles us, that tempts us and project it onto some scapegoat, usually one from a different background than our own.  Thus, we demonize by use of extreams: We should all be celibrate and temperate becuase look at what happens when someone pursues a course different from the norms of our society? Incidently, why was it that a young Gaiman was thinking about a Roman emperor and a Victorian playwrite anyway? They were both mentioned in a piece by Gilbert and Sullivan (Mr. Gilbert being quite a prude himself).

Antony lost not only the literal war, but the propganda one as well, allowing Octivian to cast/recast Cleopatra and her realm in an aura of wasteful decadence.  (It should noted that those extragavant spoils from the dead queen's treasury paid for the foundations of Augustus' Pax Romana).  Over the course of this week, I have found myself wondering what might have been instead.  What if Antony had triupmhed in place of Octivian?  Would we remember the Peace of Eygpt?  Would we be living in a culture not so mistrustful of pleasure, but, more embracing of the sensual?  Would the entire course of Western culture, and therefore history, flow differently?  Now, I realize that I am oversimplifing, running the risk of swinging too far to the opposite pole in stereotyping.  The intellectual enviroment of Hellenistic Alexandria also produced Neo-Platonism, a system of thought horribly antagonistic towards the material world, which has left deep scars along the body of Western thought.  (This is not the time for my critique of Michelangelo, though it would be a good example).  No society is perfect, all is a mixture of good and bad.

Still, it is tempting to speculate . . .

Or, perhaps, I should have simply mused on the similiarities between the Momus song "Bishonen" and the film Dogtooth? 

Regardless, cheers 


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

another sort of introduction . . .

photo by creighton blinn
all rights reserved
As hinted at in my initial post, one of the passions of my life is my writing, which I am always happy to share with others. Thus, I often read at various venues around the city. In order to give a fuller sense of my work, or at least the verses, I am posting here a video from November when I was featured at the Son of a Pony Series at The Cornelia Street Cafe. It was a great experience, and I would like to thank hostess Kat Georges once again for the opportunity. Also, a word of thanks for my sweet someone to whom I dedicated the final piece -- it's always a pleasure to find a mix of shared passions within a single person.

Enjoy the performance:


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Introductions . . .

 . . . greetings, and welcome to all for the inaugual posting of Pacing Musings.  As the title suggests, I plan on using this space for reflections and considerations.  In one sense the scope will be narrow, as my primary concern here will be the arts and items of cultural interest.  Within that, I possess a wide range of interests, and hope to touch upon them all from time to time.  So, if I find myself engrossed in a particular book, haunted by a film, entranced by an art exhibit, or simply have a bouncy pop song stuck in my head, I'll be sharing that with my readers.  And, naturally, ruminations on the creative arts may lead into any number of diverse subjects, related or otherwise.   

In turn, I myself am a published author, and shall be using this space for sharing my work with a wider audience.  I write mostly prose and poetry, though I have experimented with other mediums as well.  I also dabble in a bit of photography, which I plan on sharing as well.  

So, that covers the preliminaries.  Thanks for reading this far, and I hope that you'll stick around for more, leave comments, and enjoy the musings. 


Photo by creighton blinn, all rights reserved