The fall of the axe

April 5, 2012

I did not know what to do; my family was in a great predicament and my friend had advised me not to think too much about it, yet it was the only thing on my mind; a forgotten acquaintance had invited me to a party, and my friend pressed me to go, though a blizzard came down heavy upon us. I was living overseas and my friend, who happened to live with me, was the only person I knew. So in the end I succumbed to his incessant beckoning, and we left the warm apartment in a rush, barely catching our overcoats.

When we came out it was colder than what I had thought; the icy winter still endured and no trace of spring was to be seen, even though it was early March. So I wrapped myself more closely in my coat and followed him to his car. It was fully covered in snow.

My friend desperately shoved the snow out of the hood and windshield, but it was hopeless. By the time he dispelled the snow from one segment of the car, another became crowded with it. More and more snow kept coming down, making us more and more immobile.

“There’s no use,” I said, almost yelling.

“It’s true,” my friend said, dropping the last bundle of snow he had in his hands. “Let’s take the subway.”

It was an easy ride, slow but secure. There were only a handful of people in the wagon, and most of them kept their gaze down and their words to themselves. All save one lonely man in the corner who had a long, dark beard and a twisting mass of hair that covered his head up to his shoulders. He was bundled up in newspapers and zealously guarded several bags of garbage which lay next to his feet. Once in a while he coughed and banged his fists against the window, but it did not break. He would then gaze down and pronounce unintelligible words which nobody seemed to be concerned about.

“Don’t think about it, anymore, okay?” My friend said once we were walking down the street.

I remained silent and kept on walking. It was a hard thing to breathe. I had to press the collar of my coat against my mouth and nose so that the icy wind wouldn’t fill my lungs.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Must be around nine,” my friend said. He was also wrapped in his overcoat but did not have a hat. The snow kept piling up on top of his head, which he removed, every now and then, with a swift pass of his hand.

Finally we got to the door. It was a strange feeling. We were quite far away, but I had barely noticed the trip.

The door was a large, wooden piece, with doorknobs in the form of a lion and a frame with a serpent pattern. It was an old townhouse, well conserved overall, considering the weather. And we stood there for a while staring at it, having already knocked on it twice. There was a small, circular hole on one side, at about the height of our waists, but we couldn´t figure out its purpose.

“Are you sure it’s nine? It must be later than that,” I said, but before he could respond, someone opened the door.

My acquaintance stood before us. We greeted each other with a warm handshake and I introduced my friend. I smiled and looked warmly at him, shaking my body, trying to make him realize we were standing under the heavy blizzard.

“Oh, God, it’s snowing,” he said as if suddenly realizing the weather. “Come on in.”

We entered and he closed the door behind us. We took off our coats and hung them on the hooks on the wall, which were painted all scarlet. The house was almost entirely made out of wood, except for the floor, which was made out of hard marble and had a checkered pattern that pervaded also on the stairs which stood straight from the entrance and which circled all the way to the second and third floors.

“Can I use the toilet?” My friend suddenly asked.

“Sure, follow the hallway, third door to your right.”

My friend nodded and walked away. I followed him with my sight until he disappeared inside the corridor, at which point I turned and smiled at my host.

“So, how’ve you been?” I said,  for some reason feeling unfathomably stupid.

He looked down on me, smiled and tapped me on the shoulder, then he led me in the opposite direction to where my friend had gone.

“Rosa and the others are here, too,” he said. “You remember Rosa, don’t you?”

I might have said yes but the fact is that soon I found myself in a wide, luxurious living room. The hard marble had transformed into a maroon carpet on which there lay, perfectly ordered, the fantastic furniture that completed the room. On the far side, under a glittering frame that revealed a woman draped in fur, there was a red, velvet couch, on which there sat a man, dressed in peculiar formal wear. Next to it there was a cool, black, woman-shaped lamp that emitted a dim, orange light. Further to the right, there was a wide window, facing the street, though the curtains were shut and prevented any light from the outside from coming in. Given the angle by which I had entered the room, the last thing I noticed was the girl—a slim, grey-eyed teen who sat in a comfortable armchair and who wore an elegant night dress. On her lap there was a small greyhound that she stroke slowly and smoothly.

I said hello but I was barely heard; still my acquaintance motioned me to sit on the couch and so we both did. I could hear a soft, soothing music, but as I looked around, I could not guess where it came nor I could pinpoint its exact nature. While I scanned the room, my eyes met the girl’s for a second, but I quickly looked away.

My acquaintance had begun to talk to the well-dressed man, who was reading a magazine. They talked about something or other, but I did not take notice as I was wondering where my friend had gone and where the music was coming from. But as I began to stress my thoughts, the recollection of my family and their terrible situation popped into my head—they had been deceived out of all their possessions and driven to the edge of monstrosity. My father’s flourishing business was doomed and I, his appointed successor, had left for a more glamorous life.

As my thoughts gathered more and more steam, I thought about leaving, bidding farewell to my hosts and run all the way back home, but my friend soon came back, almost rushing into the living room, and sat right next to me, giving me a strong hug that lasted more than what I had expected.

As he sat, I picked up the ongoing conversation, but I was unable to comprehend anything they uttered. They spoke a strange language; the words sounded as shrieks proper of a berserk animal, even though their manners were perfectly social and familiar. From time to time they turned towards me, gave me what I considered to be a condescending smile, and spoke to me in plain words. They asked me about my job and my life, but they quickly returned to their conversation.

My friend, however, seemed perfectly at ease with the situation, and followed their eyes as if he were following a simple game of Ping-Pong. Therefore, knowing myself cast off, I stopped listening and turned my attention towards the girl, who sat lonely with her dog. Her gaze was aimed towards the long, draped curtains but, noticing my gaze, she quickly turned towards and smiled. But her smile was not aimed at me, not at anyone else; instead it hovered across the room as if she had her mind focused on an entirely imagined life.

“You’re Rex’s friend?” She said.

“I believe so,” I answered, still vexed on the way her hands went hither and thither from the animal’s head and back.

“It was a good thing that you came, all things considering,” she said, blinking slowly.

For a second I thought she was talking about my family, but soon I understood she referred to the unmerciful weather that could still be heard coming down strongly.

“It’s been a long time. I hadn’t seen Rex in a long time,” I said, becoming suddenly aware that my hands were uncontrollably rubbing my knees.

“When did you meet?”

“Oh, I’ve known him for a long time,” I said, and tried to remember where I had met him, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember when and where. He was an elusive memory. Once or twice he had come back in a conversation with my family, but always as a side-note. His name I had completely forgotten and the name Rex seemed somewhat unfamiliar.

“And now here you are. I guess you never know what you’ve got in your own house, don’t you?” She said, and laughed strongly.

The laugh reverberated through the room and those that were sitting next to me turned at us. I quickly looked back, as if guilty of something, and noticed that Rex’s friend was missing. I began to wonder where he had gone, but the thought lasted no more than a second, for instantly he appeared next to me, with two cups of wine, one of which he was offering to me. I took it instinctively and drank a sip. I enjoyed its flavor, but couldn’t pronounce what was grape it was, even though when small I had been an outstanding taster, able to identify any smell or flavor.

“So, are others coming?” I asked, more to me than to anyone else.

“In a while; you never know who might come popping in your doorstep,” Rex said. And as he did so, he got up, walked towards Rosa and kissed her on the mouth.

I tried to ignore this, but the act offended me; and as he came back to the couch, I could not help my stern countenance.

“But honestly,” Rex said, as if withholding my threat against him, “I wanted to understand your situation. You are a doctor, as I believe.”

“Lawyer,” I say, glancing back at Rosa who had remained unmoved by Rex’s kiss.

“Basically the same thing, isn’t it?” Rex said and chuckled. “Anyhow, we have a situation. You see, our Rosa here is a wonderful lady, but she is hard to satisfy. She is ill. We need you to see what’s wrong with her.”

Rosa’s dog suddenly detached itself from her and came up to me, sticking his head in between my legs. He was a charming dog, curious and with a loving expression. And I was about to pet him when Rex came rushing to me, yelled out something in that strange language, picked it up and put it back on Rosa’s lap.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said, coming back to me. “As I said, she needs someone to take a look at her.”

“But I’m not a doctor, you see, a lawyer is someone who—”

“She has moments,” Rex interrupted me in a sharp tone. “She has moments when we she gets this feeling as if she were about to fade, as if nothing could keep here standing. We have brought doctor after doctor, but when they sit with her, they are sickened by her illness and rush to the bathroom, wanting to throw up, as if that could free them from her, from that black shapeless mass that surrounds her at times, sort of like a crazed chimp trying to break loose of its bars.”

I slowly turned towards her with an aching feeling that I would look upon a monstrous figure, deformed and abominable, but she remained as she was, a good girl, Rosa, her lose hair falling beautifully down her neck, mixing with the dog’s fur that was healthy and lustrous.

“I don’t see anything wrong with her now, are you sure—”

“He can’t see it! He can’t see it!” And as he said this, his friend picked me up and began searching inside my pockets. I tried to restrain him, but Rex took my arms from behind and held them tight. His friend went through everything and destroyed all that I had in my pockets. And when he was done, they both released me.

I tried to reach my friend, but just then I noticed that he had gone up to the window and had stuck his head in between the curtains, so that all but his head remained on this side.

“You pigs!” I yelled, but my voice sounded utterly ridiculous. “I am not a doctor—have never been. I am a—”

“Look upon her!” Rex cried, and immediately called his friend, who took me by my arms and carried me all the way to Rosa’s armchair. “Look upon her. Heal her. Heal her. And if you don’t” he turned to his friend, “then kill him.”

I was still shocked by the sudden turn of events when I felt her hand touch my shoulder. I looked down on her and for a moment she seemed like the most beautiful thing in the world, genuine and pure, as if incapable of any violence whatsoever.

But suddenly I heard someone get closer to me and whisper, “Please, let me die.” And as I heard this, I noticed her sad, pale face. I peered back to see if no one had heard her, but nobody had. Now she looked decrepit and weak, but she still had her hands running on the dog’s back.

“What are you talking about?” I whispered. “You are a healthy girl, somewhat skinny, but with your whole life ahead of you. Don’t listen to them.”

She straightened herself and picked up her earlier expression. Rex and his friend had left their spot and were now close to my friend, who still had his head stuck inside the curtains. As they caught my eyes, they revealed a huge axe. They showed it to me and began to play with it, swinging it from side to side. Quickly I turned to Rosa and pleaded her to stop them, but she was only focused on her dog.

Ultimately, she appeared to listen to me and put her lips close to my ear. “You know, I have lost all faith in you. You thought you knew what you were doing. You were so secure of what you knew. But if you have such friends as Rex, you should never have abandoned your family. Before you only knew about yourself. Now you know what else is there beside you. And your family is out there, in this icy winter, suffering the frost, while you’re about to be beheaded by the stroke of the axe.”

“You joker! Everything has been an act!” I shrieked upstarting. “My friend tricked me into coming here. And what for? So I could forget my grieving family and watch all of you perform around me?”

Rosa looked at me with a sudden compassion, and said, “That axe is not so bad. It creates a sharp wound around your neck. You could barely hear it if you were lost in the forest.”

“Of course, not bad at all!” I said, mocking her, but the words sounded deadly earnest.

There was a loud bang outside and I turned towards the window, but I had forgotten the curtains were shut and nothing could be seen. My friend was still in the same position, and Rex was now sharpening the axe.

When I came back to Rosa, she had already taken off all her clothes, and lay naked in the armchair. Quickly, I pulled a blanket and covered her, but the dog, becoming suddenly vicious, tore it apart.

“I would love to scratch your brains out,” she said, moistening her lips.

And at that moment the axe was brought down. I could hear the head falling on the other side, but when I looked, my friend’s body remained still in the same immobile position. It was just then that I remembered my family. So I gathered all my remaining strength and unglued myself from Rosa. I rushed towards the door, and attempted to unhook my coat, but it was stuck in the rack, so I left it.

I rushed out the door and ran. I thought about my family, how I, the prodigal son, the pride of my parents, had abandoned them. I knew I couldn’t go back to my apartment, my key was useless now. So I kept running, aware that none of my fellow coworkers would come to my aid. I had been deceived. Once you have ignored the alarm of the night bell—it can never be made good.

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Memes and Language

January 8, 2012

If there is something human culture must be proud of giving birth, that is a meme. Memes are usually associated with the most modern types of language such as texting, expressions, jargon or other kind of informal communication. They are not simple ideas, but complex ones that inform memorable units.  Then again, memorable and inexorable as they are, they have not had a major role in critical analysis of languages. There is another unit of language that, on the other hand, has enjoyed more attention in the recent past: Metaphors. Among the most generous writers on the theme we find George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their thesis, stated briefly, is: metaphor, rather than being exclusive to poetry and extraordinary language, is pervasive en everyday life: in thought and action. This may sound very nice and tidy, yet, metaphors, given their nature as units of language that refer to something other than what is literally stated by the symbols of which they are composed, must have a cultural component. And so, we wonder, is there a tighter relation between metaphors and memes? If so, what is the relation between memes and Lakoff and Johnson’s theory? Furthermore, how is it that we come to understand memes and what is their role in the process by which we acquire language? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer in the following pages.

Firstly, as this is an essay focused on language, it is only natural to begin by defining the most important term that will be discussed in this piece, namely, memes. Whereas human beings are able to transmit our genetic information down to the next generations by means of our biological features, culture and the realm of ideas are able to transmit their information by means of memes. In short, a meme is a unit of language that carries cultural ideas, symbols or practices. They are phrases, images, or sounds, and they spread themselves from person to person. As Daniel Dennett mentions, “just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” (Dennett, pg. 128) They are invisible, just as genes are (tentatively); they are carried by meme-vehicles, such as pictures, books and sayings (we have all met a colleague that has had the luck of becoming a meme…. ‘Oh, you did a Sharon!’). Their existence depends on a physical body that can function as their host. They behave like airborne invaders of our minds that enter through our eyes and ears just as parasites and bacteria invade our bodies through other routes.

Memes are an elusive concept by nature. Meme is itself a meme (Just as Milhouse will never be), a rare one as analytic philosophy has proven by not allowing it to be the subject of its articles. Examples there are many: music, writing, violence, metaphor, anti-Semitism, Ulysses, Then Who was Phone? They are units that carry compacted cultural concepts.

Most of these have never struck us as memes, but as simple concepts, ideas or names. But this is due not because they have ceased to have a vast cultural load, but because the cultural background necessary to understand those words have been with us our entire lives and we have forgotten their existence. We simply accept them as objects that exist “out there”; we take them for granted, and we forget that they are indeed contingent on a particular knowledge of our culture. But they are memes nonetheless.  For instance, in order to understand the word “music” one has to be in possession of a vast array of cultural information. For starters, one needs to know the English language. One also needs to have been exposed to some form of music, otherwise the word would be vacuous and its meaning would only contain the idea of producing rhythmic sounds, which would be useless still, because we also need to know the meaning of “rhythmic” and “sounds.” Even a deaf person must have a particular cultural background to understand “music,” whether it is watching a pretty girl playing piano or watching a man dance to the tunes of the Bee Gees. Those mental images are what compose the word “music,” and by nature, those components are cultural.

Now, many of you may wonder what is the “Then Who was Phone?” meme that I wrote above. This is an Internet meme, one, if not the most, sophisticated type of meme. It was originated in the image-board 4Chan and the source of it was a post in one of its forums. The original post read, “So ur with ur honey and yur making out wen the phone rigns. U anser it n the voice is ‘wut r u doing wit my daughter?’ U tell ur girl n she say ‘my dad is ded’. THEN WHO WAS PHONE?” After this post was submitted, it spurred an enormous amount of responses, replies and imitations; suddenly the phrase “THEN WHO WAS [X]?” quickly spread all over the image-board and the internet. There were images, videos, montages, jokes, political statements, social opinions, all formulated around that badly-written post.

The question by itself is surely nonsensical. In order to understand the meme, one has to know its cultural background. Even if one has not read the original post, it is necessary to know the environment in which it cropped out. Without the knowledge that there is an image-board called 4Chan, or without the knowledge that there are Internet memes that refer to a concept that is loaded with intentionally bad orthography and use of clichés, one could not grasp the significance of the meme, and be left to simply understand it as a nonsensical phrase.

Memes rarely originate purposefully, indeed they are the product of linguistic variations within the infosphere, just as certain biological traits are the product of random variations within the biosphere. They may crop up via a random post in an internet forum, or given a particularly heated vociferation by a politician or journalist. They appear because they satisfy their users. The physical vehicles that serve as hosts to memes (us) are provided with a pleasure and a gratification for using a phrase or image that allows them to feel like belonging within the particular culture to which the meme is making reference. There is an aesthetic pleasure in making a reference to a culturally loaded concept, namely that of participating in an activity shared by many, for instance using the same specific idiom.

Now, there is another linguistic unit that also provides its users with pleasure when using it: Metaphor. Eloquence, wit and luxury are all properties of a good and nicely-timed metaphor. There is surely a feeling of satisfaction when one is able to construct a valid and sound metaphor. It just fits and makes sense.

In addition to these “aesthetical impulses,” Ted Cohen (Cohen) argues that metaphors, too, are so popular in language because they achieve a level of intimacy between the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor. He notes that the utterer and the listener (or writer and reader) are drawn closer to one another through metaphor because when engaged in this particular feature of language, the maker issues a kind of hidden invitation which then is rewarded by the appreciator  with a particular effort, and this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community. This sense of close community results not only from the awareness that an invitation has been offered and accepted, but also from the awareness that not everyone could offer that invitation, or accept it and take it up.

Of course, literal language also offers a sense of intimacy, for the simple fact that the interlocutors are sharing a specific language; however, this intimacy is not sufficiently exclusive. Millions and millions of people use English every day and this undermines the level of community that people experience when talking to each other. Conversely, “a figurative use [of language] can be inaccessible to all but those who share information about one another’s knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.” (Cohen, pg. 9) In other words, figurative use of language requires a complex and sophisticated shared culture, which in turn enhances the communal experience.

Metaphor has been historically regarded as a device of poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish; and for this reason, most people regard it as being a linguistic luxury. However, as Lakoff and Johnson have pointed out, metaphors are not only present in fiction or poetry, but pervade in the everyday concepts that govern our thoughts. Metaphors exist in every level of our language, for they are a vital component of our conceptual structure.

The manner in which we understand and perceive the world is shaped by our concepts. These concepts give structure to reality and allow us to form webs of understanding. And it is in the simplest things, particularly in the way we use language and create language (within ourselves), that we come to realize that our conceptual scheme is fundamentally metaphorical.

As Lakoff and Johnson rightly point, this conceptual system is not something most people are aware of; in fact, it is often taken for granted and never questioned or analyzed. It serves us well and for that reason we simply obey it by acting and perceiving just the way it tells us to act and perceive without any further consideration. For this reason, the claim that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical might seem somewhat far-fetched. Then again, our conceptual system is bound to our language; indeed it is language that establishes and allows our concepts to work and exist. The way we think, the way we talk, our behavior, our unconscious drives, they are all, in some form or other, the expression of a language. And so it is only natural, if we are to give evidence of the central claim of this section, that we focus on linguistic evidence.

Before we go in deeper,  I must make a slight pause. Lakoff and Johnson have long debated the claim that metaphors are pervasive in our everyday life, and have dedicated long articles and even entire books to prove this point. For this reason, it would be foolish to try to reproduce their arguments in full-length and condense it in just a few paragraphs. For that reason, I will only explore one example that might give the reader an idea of how they go about with their argument. Having said so, let us consider the metaphorical concept of “Time is Money.”

First, let us consider the vast array of expressions and phrases that are produced by this metaphorical concept.

You’re wasting my time.

How do you spend your time these days?

You’re running out of time.

I don’t have enough time.

Just as Lakoff and Johnson note, in modern Western culture, the concept of work is normally associated with time. It has become a custom to pay by the hour, week, or year. Compensation is often thought of in terms of time, and even prison sentences are often referred as “doing time.” Time has been quantified and thought of as a valuable commodity, and we not only think and talk in a way that demonstrates this, but we also act accordingly. We understand the concept of time as a metaphor involving money, for we think of it and experience it as if it could be spent, saved, invested or wasted.

“Time is money” is tied with our everyday experience with time, money and limited resources. However, it is important to note (even though it is quite plain) that Time is not intrinsically tied in with money, as it is not a necessary condition to think time as money in order to conceptualize Time. The reason we (Western society) have it in such a way that they are inseparable is due to our cultural background. Culture has shaped the way we experience the world both mentally and physically (experiences), and since Time and Money are culturally tied in, our interior concepts are also tied in.

Lakoff and Johnson’s argument revolves around the idea that our conceptual system works metaphorically given the fact that concepts are loaded culturally. This cultural load permeates in our minds in such a way that the manner in which the concepts are used in culture transfers into our thinking of those concepts, indeed in our very grasping of the concept.

And so here at last we come back to memes. Memes, by definition, are culturally loaded units of language; indeed they are the “genes” of language. The question I shall consider, therefore, is: aren’t metaphors a type of meme?

But before we try to answer such a question, we must first elucidate on the nature of metaphors.

A metaphor is a linguistic device used to understand a thing in terms of another. It constructs a bridge between two concepts in order to further the understanding of the concepts in question. By linking the two concepts with an identifying verb (is, was, are), we highlight (and hide) certain qualities of one concept and apply them to another. So for instance, consider the metaphor: “Sally is an ice cube.” Here certain properties of an ice cube are applied to certain characteristics of Sally. Definitely the sentence is not alluding to the possibility that Sally is, in fact, an ice cube (although, if this were the first sentence in a children’s book, I might consider it)—the reader of such sentence is aware of this and recognizes it as a metaphor, and so begins to scan both concepts in search for transferable properties.[1] This is the invitation Cohen refers to. We invite the appreciator of the metaphor to discern which properties are applicable to Sally.

In a normal situation, we could safely say that the metaphor alludes to the fact that Sally is “cold” with people, that is, Sally is somewhat indifferent or behaves in a very crude and austere manner. But how is it that we can come to know this? Is there really an objective link between the coldness of an ice cube and the way a human being might behave? If not, where do we gather the information necessary to deduce what the utterer or writer of the metaphor is alluding to?

We can discard right away that an ice cube has any objective similarity with Sally for Sally is a human and as such is made out of flesh and bone, and the ice cube, well, it’s made of ice. So, if there is no intrinsic value from which we could establish the relationship between Sally and an ice cube, the value must be artificial, i.e. cultural.

From this it is easy to come to the conclusion that metaphors need a cultural parameter in order to be understood. If coldness wasn’t culturally associated (like Time is with Money) with being indifferent or unsympathetic or insensitive, then the metaphor would be meaningless; it would be like saying “Sally is a block of cheese” whereby the invitation presented by the maker of the metaphor is incredibly difficult if not impossible to take on. Metaphors are successful if the relation between the concepts in question has a cultural background shared by the interlocutors, otherwise the appreciator has no parameter with which to judge and determine the metaphor, and it would be an exercise of guessing and inventing rather than interpreting.

For instance take the above example, “Sally is a block of cheese.” Here we all agree, or at least let’s assume that there is no cultural backgroun that could help us understand the metaphor. A block of cheese isn’t normally associated with a person, at least in (my appreciation of) Western culture. So if we came straight to Sally and told her: “You are a block of cheese” she would probably frown and stare with confusion. Granted, there might be some connection between Sally and a block of cheese….you might say that Sally is yellow and this might mean that she is a coward. Or you might say that Sally smells bad. You could build a series of guesses that could, tentatively, be right and function within the boundaries of the metaphor. However, the chances that Sally can gather what the maker of the metaphor is trying to say are minimal, and any success that the metaphor enjoys will be the product of chance, not of Sally’s effort of picking up our intension.

Metaphors draw their power not from the ability the appreciator might have at guessing possible meanings, but rather on whether the metaphor is successfully alluding to a culturally-established association. Here it must also be pointed out that the culturally-established association need not be something that covers a wide population, it may be that it only covers the maker and the appreciator. It may be an inside joke, or a particular experience the interlocutors shared, or even their particular knowledge of each other.

We therefore come to the conclusion: metaphors are memes, for their entire purpose is to carry out and expose a particular cultural background. It is true that our ability to discern which properties are to be considered and which properties are to be discarded plays an important role; however, this process comes after the metaphor has uploaded the relevant cultural information into the conversation. We determine which properties are valuable and which aren’t in virtue of the cultural parameter that we have. The sense of intimacy Cohen argued for, relates to the specific infosphere created for the specific conversation. The infosphere will be loaded with a set of information (cultural background) and it is this information that needs to be recognized in the invitation.

In other words, metaphors are memes for the simple reason that metaphors too are units that transmit cultural concepts. Now, let us look at three kinds of metaphors. The first and most easily overlooked type of metaphor is dead metaphors such as “Computer virus.” In this case, there is nothing really interesting going on terms of whether the metaphor is a meme, because it obviously is as the metaphor has established itself as a unit and not as a relation between an X and a Y. It is simply alluding to a cultural identity embedded in them.

Another type of metaphor to consider is extended metaphors, which is the most common type of metaphor. It establishes a comparison between two or more subjects. Our example of “Sally is an ice cube” is a clear instance of this. And as I argued above, in this case the cultural association of “ice cube” with “indifference” or “insensitivity” is vital for understanding the metaphor. The metaphor alludes to this cultural content.

Finally, we shall consider absolute metaphors, or Catachresis.  Here the words are used to fill a gap or to denote a trope that cannot be reduced. An example of this is the word “light” as standing for “truth.” This is a very complex and interesting type of metaphor for it fills a space that has no proper term; the metaphor transforms a word into a concept. Then again, interesting as it may be in the fields of the philosophy of language, it is also trivial in our attempt to identify metaphors as memes because an absolute metaphor is the most perfect example of a meme. Catachresis transforms a word, which has a literal meaning, into a culturally loaded concept. Just as the meme “Then who was phone?” transforms a question that has a definite literal meaning (flawed as it may be) into a culturally-loaded idea, catachresis does likewise.

Now we must come back to Lakoff and Johnson’s argument. They argued that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life given our conceptual systems being fundamentally metaphorical—i.e. the language that dominates our conceptual schemes is metaphorical.  However, if metaphors are memes, then could we transfer their argument and claim that Language is built on memes?

First we need to incur into what we mean by the concepts we are examining, this time we must explain what “language” means. Language, in its most basic form, is a collection of symbols that work around a structure that presupposes a shared culture, where this culture is, for its part, based upon learning the meaning of the different symbols. So for example, the word “tree” in order to work as a word in the English language, requires the user and all the interlocutors to have some experience of a tree and to be conscious of the relation between that experience with the sound “tree” and the image “tree.”

Now, with an analysis of language and its philosophy, one need be careful about what emphasis would be fruitful for the purposes of the discussion, as it is easy to get lost in semantic labyrinths. There are many theories on meaning and language but, interesting as they may be, our focus will be to attempt to answer the question: how do we acquire language? And so come to a conclusion regarding what language is made of.

Language acquisition is happening all the time. Every day we learn new words, new mannerisms, new expressions. But the process of acquiring such units and of forming a coherent system has been a matter of long-lasting debate. Among the theories that approach the subject, two I consider particularly noteworthy. The first one is the relational frame theory, which puts forward the idea that people acquire language purely through the interaction with the environment; the second one is the emergentist theory, which posits the idea that we acquire language through a cognitive process that consists of biological pressures and the environment. Now, we must note that both theories depend on the drive to emulate and imitate sounds and images and link them with gathered knowledge. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we learn language by means of an innate virtue that guides our learning or whether it is simply a matter of nature against nurture, nature being our innate qualities—the interior mechanisms of our minds—and nurture being our experiences; in either case we are gathering sounds and images and sticking meanings unto them.  But these meanings are necessarily based on the cultural environment, even if the way we acquire them is up for grabs.

Take for example the concept of God, and take Descartes argument that the concept of God is in fact not cultural, but rather an imprint of God. Descartes’ posture does pose a problem to the argument; however, we can easily see that there is a major flaw in his thinking by simply noting that people have different concepts of deities based on their cultural environment. A Muslim will have a completely different concept of God than that of a Catholic or a Buddhist.

Meaning is inherently cultural—the meaning of something is determined solely by the meaning the culture in hand has given to it, even if the way we gather these meanings is up for debate. The words, expressions, and mannerisms that we acquire in language are determined by cultural associations, and we understand them in terms of these associations; meaning, therefore, is a cluster of cultural information. True, what this cluster consists of is a matter of high-heated debate, but still the reference to it remains. When we acquire language we are acquiring units that allude to cultural concepts, and so when we acquire language we are actually acquiring memes.

But the matter is not quite settled for there are millions of memes, just as there are millions of words, expressions and so forth. How is it, then, that we manage to get one language, if the possibilities are endless and the only parameter through which we acquire language is that its units are culturally loaded?

Let me start this with a joke: the English, the Chinese and the German Language walk into a bar. They order a few beers and they get to talking, and in a minute they begin to argue about who would beat who in a real fight. And the Chinese says, ‘Of course I would! I’m made out of two billion people!’ The German shakes his head and says, ‘Of course I would! I’m made out of balls and wieners!’ The English ponders for a moment and smiles. He says, ‘Of course, I already won. We’re talking in English.’

Language is inherently competitive. It is the most furious, intolerable, unforgiving and violent thing in the world.

It is not unreasonable to say that schools of thought evolve into their successors. Just as Daniel Dennet notes, “In the struggle for attention, the best ideas win, according to the principle of the survival of the fittest, which ruthlessly winnows out the banal, the unimaginative, the false.” (pg.128) Memes spread in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain: If a writer hears a good expression, he will write it down and pass it on to his readers and colleagues. This is what determines which memes stay in our mind and which are discarded. But of course, it is a subjective matter; some people will find certain memes more original and more luxurious while others might find them false and banal. Just as certain environments will be able to host, say, hippopotamus and not, say, alligators, our brains are fertilized in such a way that we are keener to welcome certain memes and reject other ones. But, just like any fauna or flora, or indeed genes, memes strive to reproduce as much as they can.

Dennet points out that “meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genic evolution. It is not just a process that can be metaphorically described in theses evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly.” (Dennett, pg. 128) Memes are like any other thing that is evolving. They have variability—there is a flowing abundance of different elements. They have the ability to create copies or replicas of themselves—the memes “violence” and “metaphor” replicate themselves through college courses which carry and propagate them. And there is a differential “fitness” to them, so that the success a meme may have at replicating itself depends on the interaction between the characteristics of the meme and the features of the environment. For instance, this essay is propagating many memes like “culturally loaded” or “infosphere” or even “meme,” just as during a particularly severe financial crisis the media propagates the memes “meldown” or “recession.”

There is a very particular violence embedded in the process of language acquisition. As all species strive to survive and propagate their own genes and impose themselves upon the others, memes are also driven by the same urge. For instance, consider the meme “Capitalism” and the meme “Communism.” The armies and the propaganda and the ideas that are taken to be Capitalism and Communism are simply the physical embodiments of those memes. They desperately want to take a hold on a strong, fit and able physical vessel. And since they are conflicting memes, that is, a being cannot host “capitalism” and “communism” at the same time (unless there is a particular behavioral disorder in place). They fight to impose themselves in the population. The violence in hand is the violence inherent in natural selection—the survival of the fittest.

When we acquire language, especially at a young age, we are the target of millions and millions of memes that seek to inhabit our brains. Teenagers are struck with memes like “emo” or “goth” or “intellectual” or “athletic.” All of these struggle, by means of peer pressure from those that host those memes, or by the exposure they have in life (media, parents, school), to be able to get into our brain, just as a virus tries to get into a computer or seize your immune system.

Consider also entire languages such as “Old English.” We are safe to say that that meme and the ones that inform it are only alive in the minds of Shakespeare aficionados and literary geeks. On the other hand, consider the informal English jargon made up of words such as “sup” or “web” or “yo.” Those memes have beaten and, in a sense, have left the Old English (think of the word “thee”) in the brink of extinction.

Memes are as infectious as the most versatile fauna or flora. For instance, the other day I found myself, to great shame, humming the viral song “Friday” by Rebecca Black[2]. Now, I know that the song is quite repetitive, iridescent and, if I may say so, stupid. Yet the meme does not need to be bright, original or even melodious, it just needs to be good at replicating itself. “Friday” is good at that, extremely good, so good that it has made more than 140 million people watch it. Or consider the meme “Over 9000” that, even ten years after being created, still persists and is probably the best known Internet meme.

In the end, it is difficult to accept that it may well be that memes dominate us and not the other way around. Tis may be so perhaps because the memes “consciousness”, “human pride” and “spirituality” have taken control and have made us reject that idea. And even if in this essay I attempted to construct a link between metaphors and memes and argue for an interpretation of language as clusters of memes, I am aware that the real purpose, if the claims that I put forward are correct, is to simply create in your minds aggressive copies of the memes that inhabit mine. And the real hope may well be not to convince you of a certain point, but simply to succeed in reproducing memes such as “culture”, “meme” and, sadly, “Friday.”

                Bibliography:

  • Cohen, T. (1978) Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1, Special Issue on Metaphor, pp. 3-12.
  • Dennett, D. (1990) Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 127-135.
  • Holdcroft, D. Lewis, H. (2000) Memes, Minds and Evolution, Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 292, pp. 161-182.
  • Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. (1980) Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 8, pp. 453-486.


[1] It would be very interesting and perhaps useful for the purposes of this essay to discuss how it is that we tell which properties are applied and which properties are ignored. But as it is, this discussion would extend this essay into an undesired length and would only injure the primary point of the text.

[2] I am aware that this is a way of propagating the meme, and I do apologize for that.

Why “The Social Network” is truly the reflection of today’s society

January 27, 2011

Everybody loves The Social Network, and that is the first sign that there is something wrong going on with this film. Filmmaker David Fincher (Alien 3, Seven), with a script by Aaron Sorkin, fictionalized, packed and sold the story of how the social network site Facebook came into being and after a few months showing at the theatres, the movie has gained unanimous praise. However, this is not a flawless film. No sir. It is actually very simple-minded and insipid. In the next few paragraphs I’ll explain why. Just a quick note: I’ll avoid a synopsis of the story, as anyone who might come upon this text will have undoubtedly seen the movie, or at least heard about it enough to know the gist of it; I will only do some exposition when an argument requires it. So, as Morpheous says when he comes out of the elevator in Matrix 2: Here we go.

The first thing I’ll remark upon is the characters. Oh boy, where to begin? Well of course, Mark Zuckerberg. Billionaire Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a good actor (anyone accepted into NYU’s Tisch school of arts is quite good, if not ask James Franco). However, the first thing I learned from his performance is that he can talk really fast, really fucking fast, perhaps rapper-fast, and that’s saying a lot. He can utter like five long complicated sentences in five seconds with perfect diction. That’s admirable. Right. So he’s not spectacular as some have pointed out, but he still manages to convey the little nuances of the character: we don’t see Jesse Eisenberg, we see Mark Suckerberg. Still, the reason he’s not spectacular is one which is not his fault; it’s the screenwriter’s, but I’ll come back to that later.

Now, Zuckerberg, as portrayed in this film, is a son of a bitch, or as they put it in the film, an asshole. Let me tell you why: he’s a fucker with his ex-girlfriend (he writes a messed up, though admittedly funny, blog entry about her); he constantly downplays his best friend’s achievements; he becomes the pet of Napster-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake); he steals and mocks the good-mannered Winklevoss brothers; and, in the end, betrays Eduardo so to leave him with only 0.03% of the company (at the start he had 30%). So, he’s truly a very poisonous human being. But the really scary thing about this character (So, I’m talking about Zuckerberg as in the film, not the actual Mark Zuckerberg who might actually be a decent human being) is that the people to whom he does all these mean things don’t really do much to deserve such punishment. For instance, let’s discuss the (ex) girlfriend, Erica Albright. She’s nice to him. All she does is try to communicate with obsessed-with-Final-Clubs Zuckerberg. She asks simple questions and all she gets in return is a pissed off Zuckerberg who then goes on to downgrade Erica’s university. In that scene, the first five minutes of the film, we get the whole Zuckerberg persona. We get that he’s obsessed with Final Clubs; we get that he’s a mean motherfucker with girls; we get that he gets really angry at innocent remarks; we get that he can talk really fucking fast; we get that he’s insecure beyond belief: and, of course, we get that he’s a nerd and an extremely skilled “computer person.”

The second character: Eduardo Savarin. He’s the most decent person in the whole story, and he also talks extremely fast. He’s considerate with Mark (right after Mark breaks up with Erica, at 2am, Eduardo goes to Mark’s dorm to comfort him) and gives him 19,000 to start up Facebook. The only mishap he ever makes is freezing the account he had set up for Facebook after being severely neglected by his partner. Well, and I guess it also counts that throughout the film we see him being really stupid and not getting the point of what Facebook is all about. What does he get in return? Zuckerberg decides then to bump his ass out of the company. My God, I wish I had such a good pal.

The third, and last of the major characters: Sean Parker. The Napster creator, college-girl humper, and drug addict gets to be played by former Britney Spears boyfriend and former ‘Nsync pop-idol Justin Timberlake. He’s also a son of a bitch who wants to take Eduardo’s place as Zuckerberg’s right hand. He also talks very fast.

Here’s the first problem I have with the film: these characters are all sons of bitches. Now, I don’t necessarily dislike films whose characters are all assholes; actually I prefer that kind of characters. But if you’re going to have assholes, your movie better have a point. Anything will do, even if it’s just that everybody is an asshole and that’s it. This movie has no point! It’s just a story, it’s not a tragedy, it’s not a comedy, it’s not a documentary, there’s no argument about it. It’s just a bunch of people doing really poisonous things to each other. Zuckerberg doesn’t commit suicide at the end; Eduardo only gets a relatively small compensation; Erica doesn’t forgive him and no one acts as a moral figure in the entire film (not that there must be one, I’m just saying…). There’s no sign of redemption (Zuckerberg, in the end, actually says “I’m not a bad guy” – I laughed so hard when he said that). So basically, if you asked me what The Social Network is about I would be obliged to tell you: about mean people who are just mean because that’s how they are. There are no themes, there are no messages – we just get a (incomplete) picture of a bunch of people. It isn’t even a depiction of reality. We can’t say that the point of the film is that everybody is deep down evil. No. Only these guys. And it’s not a depiction of, say, reality, because that’s not how these people are in reality, as they have themselves said in many interviews. Dammit movie, give me something! If you’re going to fictionalize the story, at least make it have some sense.

Now, the second problem I have with the movie is its script. Many critics have said that it’s a great screenplay because it allowed a story that seemed otherwise untellable, to be told. Yeah, I give it that, even though they fictionalized the story, but other than that, there isn’t much wit in its creation. There are several problems with it. Firstly, it’s too damn long; so long that Fincher had to tell his actors to speak as fast as they could so to reduce the length of the film. Now, being long isn’t too bad if it weren’t that it made the director take such an unfortunate decision. The fact that the actors talk as fast as they talk, even though it gives the scenes a very provocative pace, rather makes them more confusing and enervating. At times it seems that we’re looking at a Girlmore Girls’ episode (I would really like to slap those girls, bitch slap them into silence). Secondly, it seems Fincher, and movie critics for that matter, haven’t realized that lines that are spoken rapidly and that share at least the minimum amount of coherence with each other don’t mean that they are good. I don’t remember a single line that I could quote and say to myself: this is some good writing. The characters talk as intelligent, amazingly eloquent, emotionally-numb people would talk. But they don’t talk as characters in an intelligent, amazingly eloquent film would talk. Characters, remember, are just elements of a film; and a film is meant to be more than just a representation of reality (this is the task of documentaries).

In art, the signified always must transcend the field of signifiers. The dialogues of a good film must serve for two purposes, to move the narrative forwards and also provide a meaning. And this is where the screenplay of The Social Network falls down. Not one of their many, many, MANY, lines is quotable in this sense (see for yourself: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1285016/quotes). Yeah, they are alright, they make the film a comfortable experience and it makes it seem that we’re listening to very bright people. Yet not one of the dialogues gives one the semblance that the director is trying to say something with them. They are all very innocent and straightforward. (For an example of fertile dialogue see the Coen Brother’s films, every one of them.)

The third problem I have with the film is its sheer existence. Why on Earth do we need a film like this? Ok, we like to see smart people fighting each other apparently. But has it any significance? It’s just the story about three people, two of them being complete assholes and the other being quite retarded. You know what it would’ve been more interesting? To actually see the film exploring the impact Facebook has on society! You don’t show us anything of the sort, movie! You just sit around, with your nice photography, narrating to us the minutia of the creation of a product (the fake minutia), rather than the implications the product has on people and the nuances of society. Because, being honest, who gives a shit about Mark Zuckerberg really? Just a Harvard kid who had a good idea and then went on to become a billionaire – unless he ends up committing suicide in the next few years and we then see “The Social Network 2: Fucked in the brain” there’s really nothing interesting about it. What would be interesting is to see a story interweaving Facebook’s rise to power with a good ol-fashioned drama or comedy or whatever, and see how Facebook’s existence has changed the way people interact with each other – or even more, see how Facebook has changed and informed language.

The movie is all right. But that’s about it. The real problem with this film is that it’s dangerous because of what it means. The movie has been nominated to almost every award a film could be nominated, and has been praised by everyone. The danger with this movie is that it’s pure leisure. There’s no ambition in this film, none whatsoever beyond telling a mildly-interesting story. The director doesn’t try to create something new and transgressing with it. The photography is good but standard, there’s nothing interesting about it. What I’m trying to say is: this is entertainment, in the most strict and horrible sense of the word. It’s an activity that is diverting and that holds the attention. It’s more or less like drinking a lot of alcohol, without the possibility of waking up next to a girl in the morning. Or being stoned. It’s just something that holds out your consciousness so that you can be amused, the way babies are amused with a bunch of keys being rattled in front of their eyes. There are no sharp ends to The Social Network; there’s nothing in the story that has the power to affect you in any way. Yes, you could develop an interest in programming after watching it, but still you will go on thinking the same way and acting in the same way, and believing the same things you have believed all your life.

Think, on the other hand, of True Grit, or Toy Story 3. Think about the impossibly vast, starry nights of the western skies, or the unsettling image of watching toys about to be incinerated. There’s something in the scenes of those two films (to name a few) that catch our attention and point towards something else, towards a transcendent meaning behind it all. And even if we can’t find one, we have that feeling: the sense that the elements projected upon the screen aren’t just stuff – there’s something different, something completely out of place, something quite out there, that allow us to become active, rather than passive.

That’s the main problem with “The Social Network,” it’s such a passive film. You don’t have to do anything, ANYTHING. You just have to sit there, listen (closely), eat your popcorn, drink some soda, then walk away and repeat the same retarded comments that you think sound so clever: “wow, that movie really had some good dialogues”, “wow, that mark suckerberg eh, he really made it”, “wow, that photography is really cool!”, “wow, that Justin Timberlake is so fucking cute!” (the last one being by far the more interesting one).

Finally we arrive to why this movie is truly the reflection of today’s society. We live in a society that is scared of making an effort. We don’t want hard jigsaw puzzles that test our power of abstraction – we want the rattling keys. That’s the message behind this film, and that’s the message the people, and critics, by liking this movie so much, send everyone: that’s it’s alright to make a film that contributes nothing to the film industry besides fast talking.

But well, the good thing is that we just have to watch it, only two hours of our life spent on this movie are not wasted hours – but Fincher had to direct it, and Sorkin had to write it, and the producers had to produce it, the actors act it, they spent about a year of their lives doing this. Damn.

Rayuela (Or How You Can Teach People to See Patterns Pretty as Can Be)

August 3, 2010

(I’m sorry for my non-Spanish speaking friends. When I started writing this I was reading a couple of essays by Salvador Elizondo and his use of such a sophisticated language made me want to write an essay about a novel. So I began to write this piece and before I knew anything about it I had written 3 pages in Spanish and I was too lazy to translate it to English. So here it is, my take on Cortazar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch in English). Next week I’ll get a piece of fiction in English over here (maybe Ed and Mark are back…) I promise. Anyway, for my Spanish-speaking friends, hope you like it.)

Tal vez algunos de ustedes ya lo sepan, pero mi novela favorita es (y probablemente lo seguirá siendo incluso después de que termine la odisea que es leer Ulysses) Rayuela de Julio Cortázar. Es difícil explicar porqué es mi novela favorita, sin embargo creo que es un ejercicio loable tratar de ser elocuente en cuanto a los gustos propios. Es por esto que en éste pequeño ensayo trataré de explicar cuál es “el punto” de Rayuela y de ésta forma argumentar porqué es mi novela favorita.

No es raro que, al leer una novela, el lector trate de interpretar los eventos de los cuales los personajes principales son partícipes. No es extraordinario que se logren encontrar perspectivas mediante las cuales la trama tome un peso mayor en diferentes áreas (política, social, artística). Y para nada es extraño que los críticos sean los más experimentados en éste ejercicio: leer el libro como una montaña de referencias y simbolismos – que si X personaje en realidad siempre estuvo soñando; que si Y personaje en realidad es producto de la imaginación de otro. Sin embargo, y aceptando que éste análisis no es para nada inútil ya que sin él no podríamos experimentar la novela más allá de simple entretenimiento, en Rayuela indagar en éstos detalles, éstas perspectivas no es realmente “el punto.”

Entiendo que puede sonar más que pretencioso y absoluto al decir que algo no es “el punto” de una obra, más siendo una obra artística, por lo tanto quiero establecer que ésta es simplemente una opinión personal y que mi intención no es tratar de atinarle a la intención original del autor (que igual no tiene mayor mérito que la interpretación de cualquier persona). Esto es simplemente un ejercicio para tratar de transformar mis sensaciones a palabras. Dicho esto, el punto de Rayuela es conectar al lector con el infierno y enseñarles la puerta de salida. Aquí, obviamente, tengo que explicar a qué me refiero con “el infierno.” El infierno es un lugar de total alienación y soledad. Es aquél lugar en dónde cualquier contacto es suprimido; cualquier contacto con vida o con cualquier símbolo de vida (una muñeca o un peluche). ¿Por qué? La razón es simple: cualquier dolor compartido, en medida en que el dolor mengüe, se convierte en un placer. ¿Acaso nunca les ha pasado que compartir una experiencia negativa les lleva a un gran placer? En todo caso, el dolor disminuye (al menos la sensación del dolor) mientras lo compartamos con alguien. Por ello el infierno necesariamente tiene que ser una experiencia absolutamente solitaria. El infierno es lo que es cuándo se dice “estás solo” en términos absolutos.

¿Pero por qué Rayuela es “conectar al lector con el infierno y enseñarles la puerta de salida”? La respuesta, aunque de una naturaleza bastante simple, es bastante técnica. En Rayuela, Oliveira es un hombre que trata de entender el mundo. Oliveira admite que existe un contacto con eso que llamamos Realidad y trata de ser partícipe de ella; de lograr un acercamiento, aunque sea con la yema de los dedos, aunque sea durante un segundo. Y aquí entra el otro personaje principal: La Maga. Ella representa ese contacto. La Maga es absurda, extraña, alguien alejada del intelectualismo y quién está ahí en el centro. Rayuela comienza con la pregunta “¿Encontraría a la Maga?” Y éste es el primer detalle que da a entender que la búsqueda de Oliveira por encontrar un contacto con el Mundo tiene un paralelismo con la relación entre él y ella.

El contacto anhelado se puede denotar como un “momento de sinceridad” (moment of truthfulness). Pero Oliveira (hasta el capítulo final de ambas partes) no lo logra. A través de la novela vemos cómo Oliveira trata de romper esa membrana pegajosa que nos aísla del mundo. Por eso es que Rayuela nos muestra el infierno; nos muestra ése estado en el cual no hay contacto, al menos sincero. Oliveira existe en un mundo en dónde sólo existe él y todo lo demás es un papel tapiz detrás del cual se pueden percibir formas vivas y sinceras pero difusas y lejanas. Ejemplo de esas formas es Berthe Trépat. La pianista es algo vivo, algo que no está inmerso en el mundo grotesco de la Gran Costumbre en dónde todo va de acuerdo a un plan de prejuicios y estereotipos.

El ejercicio de construir Rayuela – porqué se construye más que leerse – es el acto de interpretar eventos, ya de por sí extraños, cuya naturaleza es inclasificable. Es por eso que cualquier organización de la narrativa es en sí acertada; cómo armar un rompecabezas que no tiene forma. Hay muchísimas versiones de la narrativa que pueden ser acertadas ya que Rayuela no demuestra tener un modelo al cual se apega. Sin embargo, hay una vena temática por la cual nuestras mentes pueden transitar – tal vez sin saberlo – y alcanzar a Oliveira y caminar a su lado (o más bien alcanzarlo y ser él) a través del infierno. Es por eso que las claves de Rayuela no es si la Maga es real o no, o si Oliveira estaba loco, o si lo-que-sea, sino que las claves son el capítulo 7, el 34, el 79; las claves son Trépat, Gregorovious, el 18; son aquellos segmentos de la historia tal vez innecesarios desde un punto de vista narrativo pero trascendentales en cuanto a una conexión entre el lector y los “momentos de sinceridad.” Rayuela nos enseña el infierno pero al mismo tiempo nos da muestras de que se puede salir de él. Se puede llegar a ese contacto si aplicamos una norma fresca y conectada al Arte; apegada a esa búsqueda de catarsis que nos da una euforia infinita pero que sólo dura un segundo.

Pero Rayuela se tiene que pensar forzosamente, como cualquier novela, como una narrativa sobre la cual cada quién impone sus propias obsesiones; sus propios materiales de construcción. Es innegable que hay una estructura ahí: Oliveira se encierra en el manicomio, Talita hace lo imposible para pasarle un poco de mate. Pero la creatividad que uno puede ejercitar sobre el libro es inherente a la conexión que uno establece con la obra (¿porqué sentir lo que siento?) y no a esa estructura, no a la trama en sí. El terreno narrativo no es tan fértil como el lingüístico. Y digo lingüístico porque eso representan (eso son) los personajes, los jugares y los objetos en Rayuela: un lenguaje. Es ahí que encontramos la verdadera gloria de Rayuela (al contrario de otras obras, como los cuentos de Borges en los cuales es la narrativa – y su maravillosa simpleza – la que nos otorga ese rompecabezas de posibilidades estéticas y sublimes). La gama de emociones que Cortázar nos sugiere contrasta con esa Gran Costumbre de sentimientos: del concierto de Trépat al drama del mate. Y ese contraste nos enseña (énfasis en “enseña”) que el foco de atención es en la conexión entre nosotros y el lenguaje: ¿Por qué es que nos debemos sentir tristes? ¿Por qué es que nos debemos sentir felices? Éste es el cambio de perspectiva y de norma. Nos desubicamos espacialmente y temporalmente y culturalmente y de esa forma denunciamos la Gran Costumbre. Todo es perspectiva, el cambio de parámetro.

Siendo éste el propósito (a mi juicio) de Rayuela, la novela se vuelve en sí un complejo que viene siendo su propio instructivo. Es decir que al leer Rayuela uno puede disfrutarla mejor. Lo más importante en el arte es la enseñanza. El ejercicio artístico es esencialmente el de aprendizaje. El arte debe enseñar esquemas conceptuales a través de los cuales uno pueda acceder a la belleza del mundo. Al final de cuentas el universo es indiferente y es sólo a través de nuestra capacidad de – usaré la palabra – amor que uno llega a descubrir aquello que se denota tan casualmente con “felicidad.” Uno aprende de algo y lo utiliza para modificar el caleidoscopio del mundo. Es de ésta manera que DragonBall es eufórico porque Shakespeare escribió; las películas de Tarantino son estéticas porque Da Vinci pintó; The Beatles son sublimes porque Beethoven compuso la 9na. Gracias a los esquemas conceptuales que adquirimos con el arte uno puede llegar a encender la melodía del mundo.

Rayuela es un faro brillantísimo. A través de ella Cortázar nos enseña a ver el mundo y “see patters pretty as can be.” Nos enseña a aventar todo por la ventana, pero sobre todo a aventar la ventana misma y nosotros con ella. Esa ventana que es la Gran Costumbre y que nos ata a lo que la maldita moral nos dice que tenemos que sentir. Hay que deshacernos de todos los prejuicios y generar propios. Y que esos nuevos prejuicios sean esquemas conceptuales; sean aquello que nos va a permitir acceder a lo que Nabokov llamó aesthetic bliss. Nabokov: “A work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Y Rayuela existe. Y existe furiosamente. Felicidades.

Birthdays

July 23, 2010

(Today’s my father’s birthday, so in honour of that, I wrote this little piece of fiction. Congratulations!)

H walked down the street when a man stopped him, looked him up and down and said, “Happy birthday, sir.” H stared at him. He was a tall man, dressed in a dark suit, wearing a tall hat and holding a polished wooden cane. Next to his left eye he held a monocle.

“What did you say?” H said with surprise.

“I said,” the man began. “‘Happy birthday,’ sir.”

H took a step back, frowned and opened his mouth to say something; however, after a moment of indecision, he closed it again. He gazed at the suited man for a couple of seconds and contemplated the particular situation. But before he finished thinking about the strange scene, the man touched his hat bidding goodbye and walked past him.

H stood there for a moment, going over what had just happened. But suddenly he remembered the appointment he had with M (she’d invited him for breakfast), so he shook his head and resumed his step, quickened the pace. Soon he reached a crosswalk that stopped him cold and made him look with annoyance the hand-shaped red light above him. He sighed and looked at his watch; anxiously he gazed at the seconds’ hand of his golden watch, moving fast. All of a sudden, a hand touched his left shoulder. H turned around and saw a young woman standing in front of him. She was short, had long dark hair and wore gym clothes. She was looking at him, smiling.

“Congratulations,” she said.

H, as he had done with the monocled-man, stared at her with surprise. “Why do you congratulate me?” he said.

The woman widened her smile and said, “Why, for your birthday, of course.”

The light turned green and everybody around them began to cross the street. H stood amidst the chaotic gait of businessmen and passer-bys, wondering what the hell was happening. He looked at the woman, then to both his sides and back at her. She had grey eyes and now her smile had been replaced by an idle sense of uncertainty; whether she should walk away or wait for the birthday-man to say something. But H said nothing; he frowned, stepped past her and quickly crossed the street. When he reached the other side he glanced behind him but the woman was no longer there. He began to run.

The diner’s name was Rick’s and H came to its doors sweating, breathing heavily and with a deep cut on his trousers. He rested his body on the metallic bar of the door. He breathed deeply and looked at his reflection on the glass. He somehow fixed his hair and dried his face with his sleeve. Then he pushed the door and walked into the diner. As he crossed the threshold, dozens of people jumped and yelled at the same time: “Congratulations!”

H stood motionless, his mouth locked; his eyes wide open, not blinking. Confetti and pointed hats flew everywhere, the restaurant a sea of blue, red and yellow. A few children inflated balloons and blew them up right away; older boys made strange sounds with their hands and whistled loudly; adult couples simply grinned and clapped mildly. Behind the counter, cooks and waitresses looked at H in sincere happiness, some of them showing more teeth than they should have.

A piece of cake splashed on H’s face. H immediately woke out from his state of estrangement, slowly he raised his left hand and began to wipe the chocolate cream off his face. He stared at them: two teenagers at the right hand corner of the entrance lobby, laughing, celebrating the bullseye shot. H smirked. As he tried to wipe all the meringue off his hair, one of the waitresses went to him and handed him a small towel. H took it and cleaned his face carefully. Then he made a thankful gesture, gave her back the towel and gazed at the crowd. M was standing right in the middle. She was smiling and held in her hands a big chocolate cake of which a piece was missing.

“What happened to your trousers?” She asked, tilting her head; her pony-tail rose, floated in mid air for an instant, and fell back on her back.

“Nothing,” H said, his voice shallow. “I fell down, it’s nothing.”

“Come, let’s go sit down,” M said, walking towards him. She took him by the arm and led him to a table.

They sat on a booth facing each other while the rest of the crowd went back to their tables. One of the waitresses went to their table and asked what it was going to be. H said nothing. The waitress looked at him and then at M, who simply smiled. After a couple of seconds she intervened and said that a couple of scrambled eggs and a tall, pulp-less orange juice would be fine. The waitress wrote it down and walked away.

“So?” M said, grinning widely. “Happy birthday!”

H stared at her intently just as he had done with the hatted man and the grey-eyed woman. This time, however, he said nothing. Instead, he thought about what had happened and tried to remain as far away as possible from metaphysical thoughts. He nodded a few times and whispered to himself, “What-the-hell…”

Then, out loud, he said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

H smiled.

It was not his birthday.

On the phone…

July 3, 2010

You got it? Excellent… What? Don’t fuck with me, man. No, of course I don’t wanna do that. ‘Cause it’s fucking insane. Why don’t we– What? Really? Well… we could give it to Stan. What do you mean ‘Stan who’?! Stan, man… you remember him, right? No? Well, Stan’s the man, trust me. Yeah, I trust him. He’s gotten me out of some deep shit. No, of course not literally, but he’s some cool dude. We do it behind the Chinese place around the corner. Nah, its cool, man, nobody’s there… What? The girl? She’s not a problem. I got someone taking care of her right now. No, I ain’t gonna kill her, what’s wrong with you? I sent my boy to buy her a cup of coffee while we do our shit. Of course, he’s got something that kind of girls just can’t resist. Nah, not money, charm; he’s one sweet talker. The deal goes red at midnight, remember? You got to be there exactly at that time, don’t show up early and fuck it up. Yeah, right, you better not fuck me this time. When? Remember that time you were supposed to blow a fucking door? Yeah, you needed to press a fucking button and you didn’t ‘cause you were too busy getting a blowjob. Ah, yeah… now you remember, you fuck. Midnight sharp, you bring the squeezers and red tape. Just bring some fucking red tape. ‘Cause you don’t need to know, you just need to bring it. Fuck, man, just show up with red tape, what’s the big deal? Are you retarded or something? Then you’ll get a signal and they’ll tell ya what to do. I don’t know the signal. I don’t. It’s a giant penis. Yes, a giant penis. Fuck, man, yes, of course I’m fucking with ya. Someone will show up and tell ya this– Nah, no hooker is gonna show up, just some guy. Well, you want me to tell ya? Then shut the fuck up. He’s gonna tell ya “Give me the tape, retarded monkey.” I’m not kidding… He’s gonna call you “retarded monkey,” that’s the key word. Well, if you wanna do that, do it. Go ahead and blow that guy’s brains, do it, but they’ll probably chop your balls and force-feed them to ya if you do that. Yeah, to Frankie, you remember? Frankie, short guy, bald, black, he thought he could fuck Lamar’s daughter. Exactly, that guy… No, not that Frankie, the other one. No, man, fuck, that Frankie got killed by a ice-cream truck in valentines. Never mind, you be there, ok? You fucking be there, I got to go now. What? How the fuck should I know? Second date I think… What? I guess so. Yeah, I know he’s only fifteen. You don’t need to meet him. ‘Cause it’s not something you can teach. He’s got it, you ain’t. Shut the fuck up and get ready. Don’t you fucking do that…  I’m telling ya, man, don’t fucking do that. Dude? You there? Fuck. —-

Toy Story 3 (Or Why Toy Story 3 Can Make You Cry)

June 30, 2010

There are many truly wonderful things about Pixar’s new jewel Toy Story 3 such as the script, the animation, the music or the fact that a totoro makes a cameo appearance (OMG that was so cool!). However, since in my last posts I have been all about rambling on about so many things that in the end nothing really sticks, I’ve decided to write a short (or rather a “short”) piece on why this film can make even the most macho man cry.

Let’s begin with the themes. There are many, but the ones that struck me as the most important ones were three: loneliness, purpose and death. Let me begin with loneliness. The first scene in Toy Story 3 is a flashback to Andy’s imaginations concerning the adventures of Woody and Buzz when he was a kid. After this, the film cuts to Woody and the band’s attempt to get Andy’s attention, now a 17-year old teenager about to go to college. The toys try to get Andy to play again with them by stealing his phone, hiding it with them in a chest and calling him with the hope that when he finds his cell-phone he’ll play with them once again. However, Andy doesn’t care about the toys anymore and when Woody calls the phone Andy ignores them and just picks up his phone. Here’s the interesting bit: when Andy answers the phone, nobody answers (obviously, as the toys were the ones that were calling him!). Nobody answers him from the chest of his toys, of the chest where his passion as a kid lies hidden. There’s a sense of loneliness; of being lonely from oneself that’s very powerful. Has that never happened to you? That you remember how you were years ago or how you interacted with the world when you were younger? That’s what they mean by loneliness.

Now, I say one of the themes is purpose because the whole point of the film is about finding the toy’s some purpose. Woody and the other toys represent Andy’s world as a kid, and so finding the toys’ purpose in life after they’re no longer needed is like trying to find a purpose to one’s own past. All those experiences of when you were younger, all those things you lived and feared and cried about… what good are they now, years later? That’s a very strange and powerful question. When we doubt our purpose in life we risk everything. You have to put your soul at hazard. You have to say, “Ok, I’ll be part of this world.” This is strangely confusing for a film “for kids.” The thing about purpose is that purpose is the only thing that moves us, that drives us, and when we lose that and we’re still there, we feel like we’re standing in a limbo, neither dead nor alive.

Finally, I say death because the characters in this film face death so many times that it becomes ridiculous. For instance, the garbage scene at the beginning, or the crazy-ass-toy-destroying kids’ scene, or the incinerator scene; there’s always the feeling that something might go wrong and they all might die. Even at the start of the film they say that they’ve lost many toys including Woody’s girlfriend. This gives us reason to believe that death is not something quite far-fetched in Toy Story 3’s world.

Having said this, now I want to address the issue of crying about all this. Yes the film is perfectly made, all the themes are ingeniously interwoven and the dialogues are amazing, and there are many heartwarming moments. However, the most shocking thing about Toy Story 3 is that the film is filled with cathartic moments. What I mean by “cathartic moment” is that there’s some point where the characters suddenly become emotionally purged, so that the emotional tensions that were in conflict inside them, suddenly *click* and are set free, leaving a sense of intense happiness and euphoria behind. A clear example of this is the part when Buzz loses his memories but still falls in love with Jessie right after that. Buzz’s transformation is symbolic of his falling in love with Jessie. Also, we got Andy who’s clearly distressed about his toys and what he’s going to do with them, and at the end of the film he gives them to a little girl, and plays one last time with them. All the emotional tensions that he had are suddenly purged and replaced with a feeling of contempt. And finally, we have Woody’s catharsis, probably the most important one. Woody relinquishes his purpose in life. His whole life revolved around Andy’s attention and in the end he forfeits that. He has the opportunity to go with Andy and remain his toy; however he chooses not to, he chooses to stay with his friends, to stay with all the other toys. Now, THAT’s catharsis. Imagine leaving your one true love because you know that she (or he)’s not in love with you anymore. Imagine doing so having the opportunity to go with her. Woody is starting from scratch, and that’s the most wonderful thing of this film in my opinion, that it teaches us that one can lose everything, everything that gave purpose to our lives, and still be able to purge ourselves anew and be content with the world.

That’s the reason one may cry with this film. Not because it’s sad, not because it brings back memories, but because Toy Story 3 contains so many cathartic moments that it’s overwhelming. And in the end, when Buzz and Jessie dance together, with the theme song playing in the background, I just couldn’t help thinking about how great it is that a “kid’s” film has in its core a theme as important as growing up. And not growing up as in all the other “coming of age” crap films, but in the more important, more transcendent sense of purging oneself of our own emotional tensions. Just think about the first time you kissed somebody else, just think about what kind of person you were after that (that night, when you were thinking about every second of that moment) compared to how you were before. That’s powerful. So, think about that when you see Toy Story 3. There’s so much talent in this movie that is amazing. Congratulations.

“Mary,” Chapter 3, by V. Nabokov

June 14, 2010

It’s possible that many of you know that my favourite writer is Vladimir Nabokov. This post is dedicated to him, or to be more precise, it’s due to him. This is an excerpt of the third chapter of his novel “Mary,” the first one he ever wrote. I find it to be one of the most luxurious and sublime passages in literature (Shakespeare and Joyce included). Enjoy :).

“And in those streets, now as wide as shiny black seas, at that late hour when the last beer-hall has closed, and a native of Russia, abandoning sleep, hatless and coatless under an old mackintosh, walks in a clairvoyant trance; at that late hour down those wide streets passed worlds utterly alien to each other: no longer a reveler, a woman, or simply a passer-by, but each one a wholly isolated world, each a totality of marvels and evil. Five hackney droshkies stood on the avenue alongside the huge drumlike shape of a street pissoir: five sleepy warm, gray worlds in coachman’s livery; and five other worlds on aching hooves, asleep and dreaming of nothing but oats streaming out of a sack with a soft crackly sound.

It is at moments like this that everything grows fabulous, unfathomably profound, when life seems terrifying and death even worse. And then, as one swiftly strides through the night-time city, looking at the lights through one’s tears and searching in them for a glorious, dazzling recollection of past happiness – a woman’s face, resurgent after many years of humdrum oblivion – all of a sudden, in one’s mad progress, one is politely stopped by a foot passenger and asked how to get to such and such a street; asked in an ordinary voice, but a voice which one will never hear again.”

Mexico, Or How a Retarded Monkey is Telling Us Who We Are

June 8, 2010

“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding,” Kasper Gutman ‘The Fat Man’ tells Sam Spade as a toast in Jon Huston’s classic film The Maltese Falcon. In that spirit I write this; not as the mindless product of a need to prove to myself that I can produce a decent piece of writing or that I can show how fucked up we Mexicans are, but as a genuine attempt to understand Mexico’s identity. I am a Mexican, my passport is green and I cheer when the Mexican national football (soccer) team scores a goal. I have a strong connection with my country; I have a desperate affinity to tacos and our natural surroundings fill me up with a heartwarming feeling of joy whenever I think “this is me.” Still, there’s no denial that semantics are king, and thus I ask myself: What is Mexico? What is that to which politicians, journalists and citizens call to when saying “This Mexico is…”? “This Mexico” (or derivates such as “Our Mexico”, etc.) –Ha! What a splendid expression! I will try to explain my views in an orderly fashion, and for that reason it may seem that I’m discussing totally unrelated things, but trust me I’m not. Here we go…

Sometimes I find myself following the anti-realist position (as in philosophical discourse) of expressionism, where we take our fact-stating propositions to be simply the expression of our own state of mind. So that to say “Killing is bad” is synonymous with “Booo Killing!” I sometimes adhere myself to that point of view because when I hear the verbalizations Mexicans use when trying to define their (our) identity, I find that they hold no real substance; no real content. They’re like metaphors; they’re based in fictional things, as if they were based in soap operas or imaginary people. Because when we scream “Viva México” or “Mexico rules” or “Mexico exhales life,” what are we really talking about? What is “This Mexico” we are referring to?

Let’s take the objective viewpoint for a change, ok? Mexico has 40,000,000+ people in extreme poverty. Now, when we talk about poverty, it’s not like in the U.S. or the U.K. where “poverty” is a label applied to the least rich. Mexican poverty makes Vietnam’s The Shit look like a joy ride; makes Marlow’s ride towards Kurtz’s palace a Night-Out in Town. Our judicial system is… well, that’s the problem, it isn’t. There is no judicial system, at least none that can be honored with such name. Our political ambience is similar to a drunken college party, where there are people throwing up in the garden and poor oversexed students fighting over lesbian young ladies who have a sadistic pleasure of watching men fight till death over them. There is a division, each party entrenched in their own position, tearing each other apart; the radicals against the moderates, the intransigents against the “colaboracionistas”, the “Lopez-Obradoristas” against… everybody else. It’s basically a rumble, a brawl, where nobody is interested in getting things done but rather in making the ruling party look like a cheap hooker that has betrayed our trust after the hour has run out. The cultural output, well… to talk about Mexican film production is to talk about three directors (Cuarón, Iñarritu, Del Toro) who don’t live in Mexico, and whose movies have little to do with Mexico. Music… don’t get me started. And I don’t even want to mention what we do to our natural resources; just take a look at the “Cañón del Sumidero” or “The Shit-Hole” as I like to call it, because people seem to think that they can dump all their shit in there with no remorse. This is Mexico? This is what we are cheering about when we raise our glasses and we celebrate the 15th of September? If it is, then we are very stupid or sarcastically deranged or just simply masochistic. Luckily (maybe?) none of that is the case. “This Mexico” doesn’t refer to reality.

Sometimes I wonder when I watch beer ads that contain slogans like “Enjoy Life. Enjoy Budweiser,” or “Because Life is now, Budweiser,” what is this “Life” they’re talking about? I mean, it seems to work, right? We buy beer and we drink it, and with pleasure I might add. We buy it and we drink it and we yell “To Life!” or shit like that, and it makes us feel kind of good, and submental guys can get girls drunk and make out with them and it’s all fun. Still, what is it? What is the word’s referent? This time I won’t bore you with another conceptual analysis, and simply state my opinion. “Life” is just an abstract concept artificially created by beer companies in order to sell more beer. We like the idea (and the beer companies like that we like the idea) that there’s something in the spirit of “Life” to which we can hold on to when making toasts. It certainly eases the journalist’s tasks when writing inane patriotic articles and it certainly gives us hope for a better future– “the hope that Life will find a way.” But there’s no real content, no real substance. The concept “Life” is as fictional as Sherlock Holmes. And here we come back to our main concern: “This Mexico” is the same. Politicians have created a monster of an expression that serves to put Mexican citizens in a moronic state of mind and then take advantage of it and fill them up with unsupported expectations. Mexicans, after being mellowed into this state, will then swallow up with great ease the faith pill; blind, unsupported faith in a non-existent entity –proven to be non-existent- such as “This Mexico.”

Recently, our two big TV companies have put forward something called “Iniciativa Mexico” (something like Initiatives for Mexico). Now, this movement is about giving hope to Mexicans. It’s an invitation to make This Mexico a better place. Not bad, right? Let’s see…

Firstly, I want to say that the message itself is not intrinsically evil, not at all. But the intention, which is the only thing that counts, is so fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking horrible that I can only compare it to Nazi propaganda, and no, I’m not kidding. To begin with let’s discuss the ad that has Javier Aguirre, the coach of the Mexican National Football Team, that’s about to participate in the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. This guy said in a Spanish interview, a couple of months ago, that Mexico “está jodido, jodido” (is really fucked up) –and I’m not saying he’s wrong– but in the TV spot, he states the opposite. Besides letting us know that he loves his country and has all these heartwarming feelings towards it, he presents a view in which Mexico is this beautiful, democratic and wonderful place to live. Now, some may argue that one may think that a country is screwed and still love it, and I agree. However, the real spirit of coach Aguirre’s words in that interview in Spain was not that he thought Mexico was in big trouble or even that he suffered from watching his home country undergo such terrible crisis. Not at all, the real spirit of those words was hopelessness. Let me write that again, Hopelessness. Ah, there is the rub, as Prince Hamlet says in that very well known soliloquy. Aguirre finds the courage to say that we must have hope, hope in our institutions, in our society, in ourselves, etc… The problem is that there is no fundamental reasoning behind his words, there’s just a samantic labyrinth from which the majority of Mexicans cannot escape and thus become trapped in false expectations and ephimeral passions. For that reason his words have little meaning, little relevancy to our current situation, they are just words that have been prompted by the circumstances, like a simple Turing machine designed to give out sentences whenever the context is in need. Words offer the means to meaning, and in that note, Aguirre’s words allow us to detect his double discourse; in one side, his personal point of view of hopelessness and in the other, his viewpoint as a public figure, as a pillar of our system… The former one represents what is implicit in Mexico’s psyche, and the latter represents the system’s drive to preserve power and maintain his citizens in a state of hypnosis. But anyway, I digress. Where were we? Ah, yes, of course, the speech… In the ad, Aguirre makes references to political problems, terrible political problems , and severe issues regarding drugdealers and insecurity. Now, just think about it: Football + Self-loathing Coach + Drugdealing problems + Political mayhem… What result can you expect other than BOOM? You have a Football coach, a fucking Football coach!, giving a speech (quite retarded, by the way) about the gravest national problems we have maybe ever faced, and in addition the coach himself has no credibility whatsoever. Damn, it’s like having a retarded monkey talk about global warming. And also, this comes to show us that the credibility of our state is so low that we have to turn to a Football coach, whose reign in front of the national team, by the way, has been marked by incongruencies and whose discourse changes depending on the circumstances. I’ll be damned.

Now, of course, there’s a reason for this: with the upcoming World Cup, with an inflated expectative for our national football team, and with a problem of insecurity that has reached a level of hysteria beyond belief (there are night clubs in Michoacán where drugdealers roll out the severed heads of their enemies into the dance floors to announce their authority), the TV companies have to take advantage of anything, in this case Football, to keep people’s spirits as high as possible. When you have, as it was in my case, drugdealers drop a dead body 400 meters away from your home, it’s so hard to keep our spirits high; it’s difficult to go out and buy beer and celebrate. So what do you do? You get the Coach to say we can make history, and that it’s all up to us, and that we have to change and be better, and… well you know the drill, to get people’s spirits high up again, to get them excited about something as ephemeral as a football game. It’s logic, people! Logic! Don’t judge them, they are simply doing what they think will benefit their interests. Of course it’s corrupted and they hold no regard for Mexico’s psychological stability, but it’s alright.

Now, these guys do this because it’s been proven to work. But why does it work? The answer is: because of a chronic lack of a identity. That’s what I was talking about when discussing the nature of the expression “This Mexico” and its comparison to the beer-concept of “Life”: there is no Mexico! There’s a piece of land, yes; there’s a passport, yes; there’s a word, yes, but there’s no identity. And that’s the problem and the reason that trivial matters such as football or parties or whatever are brought up and placed as a substitute for a definite identity, it just works so well. We are told “Look! Look! This is who you are! This is who WE are! This is who we OUGHT to be!” and shown pictures of Mexico’s football players in sequence, accompanied by epic chord music. It’s terrible. This comes to show that Mexico’s soul hangs from a thread. We have to recur to such things as Football coaches and other shit like that to make us feel safe, to give us hope. It comes to show that we have nothing, NOTHING, apparently to hold on to besides trivialities. Now, I don’t judge the act itself; I judge the system that has given birth to such a deformed and corrupted campaign. We are so incredibly fucked up, so incredibly void of identity, that we must drink ourselves to the point that we are satisfied in thinking that Mexico’s soul lies in the prowess of a bunch of Football players (I have nothing against Football. I love it, really, love it. I play football with the same passion Christians pray to Jesus, it has nothing to do with that. I just think that, if our Mexican identity is based on a game, then we have a big problem).

Now, what to do? This is a big question. The solution, as far as I’m concerned is not that obscure: Lie! Just lie to them. In the same way beer companies have lied to the world, we can lie. The reason Mexico is so fucked up is because the stereotype of the “successful man” is severely corrupted. Think about it, a successful man in Mexican vernacular evokes cheating, having a good-looking woman, having money, knowing how to party, and holding such philosophies such as “O te chingas o te jodes” (either you’re fucked or you’re screwed), “Don’t be so serious, man, here, have a beer,” and “Meh.” This stereotype doesn’t include being educated, being morally decent, being honest, being loyal, being fair. So, the obvious solution, if we accept that people want to be successful and that they will follow the path to success as marked by this stereotypical figure and if we want our citizens to hold the ideal values just described, is to lie to them and make them believe that folks that are decent, honest, loyal, etc… are successful. I would create a big fiction that has as its main characters people that hold set of values A (the good ones) and set of values B (bad ones), and develop the story in such a way that A-people win and B-people lose or get killed or whatever. (Fiction is an integral part of people’s identities. Shakespeare is part of English identity as much as Queen Elizabeth; there’s no problem I basing our identity in a fiction.)

If we make this fiction plausible enough, then we can cheat people into accepting and following these ideal values. We have no other choice, because the stereotype of the successful man rules Mexico, it rules the world. That’s the reason I am so happy with Obama being president of the U.S. He may not know what he’s doing or that he’s a puppet or whatever you might think, but he represents all these values, and he’s the most successful man in the world, the most powerful. We need that… even if it’s not true, we fucking need that. We need someone that can show us the way, even if s/he is fictional. We need to cast away the trivial bites of soul-food that satisfy our hunger for an identity, we need to forge a personality based on more fundamental values, values that can make us compete in the political, social and cultural arenas of the world.

So, give me a break with the “Iniciativa México,” it’s something that wants to probe your mind so you keep on drinking. To this I say, Fuck it! I am a Mexican and I don’t want a shallow identity, I want something substantial, I want something sincere and honest and heavy to which I can hold my glass and celebrate without feeling stupid. And maybe this will come to happen in 20 or 40 years, but I genuinely believe that the first step is to adhere to The Fat Man’s toast of “Plain speaking and clear understanding.” Congratulations.

War Stories

May 21, 2010

You’ve probably heard this story before, right? You know, the one about these two squadrons in World War I. Yeah, you know, these two squadrons, one was German and the other French. They were deep in their trenches and it was Christmas morning and so, given that the current situation was super depressing, the French commanding officer came out of his trench and yelled out, “I offer a truce, in light that it’s Christmas morning!” Or was it the German? I don’t really remember, and I know you’re going to get on your high heels about who was the benevolent son of a bitch, so suppose both commanding officers, at the same time proposed the truce.

Well, obviously, both squadrons accepted. Bear in mind that these guys had been in that field fighting for over three days. Now, you probably don’t have the slightest idea, and neither do I, but being there must be a bitch. You know when you got a rash and you can’t scratch yourself down there because you’re at the dentist and he’s trying to pull out some bad tooth? Well, that has nothing to do with anything, but these bastards were there for three whole days, watching their friends get killed by other men. It’s brutal. They were down there for 72 hours, thinking about their girlfriends or their wives and thinking that they’ll never again be able to hold them or kiss them or have a nice blueberry cake, because some guys are gay, you know? And there’s nothing wrong with being gay, really. No, there’s nothing wrong about remembering your wife and thinking about cake. Well… where was I? Ah, yes of course, well these guys were in the shit, deep in it, covered all over the place, and it was Christmas. But the field where they had been engaged in deathly combat was coated in snow, so that all the white had covered the dead bodies and it looked awesome. So, they both agreed a truce, and got out of their trenches and recovered their squadron’s dead bodies and brought them back to their trenches. But then, as you are surely expecting, out of some misplaced sense of brotherhood or deranged Stockholm syndrome (I know this has nothing to do with anything, but I know what the Stockholm syndrome is and I just wanted to show it off), some of the brave young soldiers, from both sides, began to talk to each other. Now, these were French and German people, so they spoke more than one language. And so they began to talk, about how it was back at home, about what they were doing before they came here, and all that heartwarming stuff…

Anyway, before anyone knew about it, they began to play football (no, I don’t know where they got the ball, maybe it was just there, some poor kid dropped it, or the gay soldier had it in his backpack, just in case). No, I’m not talking about the skull-breaking American Football. I’m talking about the proper, foot-the-ball game, where you got to kick a ball into a rectangular frame (I refuse to write “soccer” outside a parenthesis). They used the snow to draw a pitch on the field, and they began to play. They had fun and they scored goals, and they took their shirts off to celebrate, and then they put them back on because it was freezing and if they didn’t they would die. And then it was half time, and they had lunch. They had sausages, because that was the only thing they had. No, that’s not to say they had a gay orgy. And they talked and showed each other pictures of their beloved ones, and again all that heartwarming stuff.

But then the second half started, and suddenly the game started to get physical. Out of the blue, the game began to mean something. Suddenly they fought every ball with passion, and they yelled at each other for bad misses or misplaced passes. Now, don’t think that this was due to the fact that they were at war and that they suddenly remembered that they were representing their countries, because that had nothing to do with it. They were proud people, and they were young and football is a very animalistic sport. I mean, you got twenty-two subnormal men chasing a ball, kicking it with their feet… When you think about it, it’s pretty primal, pretty retarded.

So, as expected, they began to fight. Out came the goalkeepers, and the coaches, and the crowd came into the field. Okay, there was no crowd, I made that up. But it got pretty bad, some of them boys lost several teeth, one or two were knocked down, and there was one guy that actually broke two ribs. But that guy was the dumbest of the lot, he was French, of course, and while running away from a German, he fell into his trench and there you go.

Well, obviously after a while they stopped the fight and shook hands again, and with toothless smiles they grinned at each other and laughed at their stupidity. It was a tie game. At least that’s the official version of it. Even though we all know that the Germans probably won, because… well… they are Germans. They’ll mess you up.

Anyway… after the game they spent the rest of the day together, yeah, you guessed it, the same heartwarming stuff. But it was winter, and so it got pretty cold at around four or five when the sun came down. So at that time they all said goodbye, they hugged it out, and went back to their respective trenches.

Now, I just told you this whole story because, supposedly, when the two commanding officers were saying goodbye, they engaged in this little dialogue.

“Well, Captain, it’s been an honor,” the French commander said.

“The honor was all mine, Captain,” the German commander said.

“Oh and I’m sorry about the fight,” the French went on. “In the end, it’s just a game, right?”

“Yes, Captain,” the German smiled. “But to which game are you referring?”

My initial intention was to end this little piece of mindlessness after that last thing the German said, but I felt that I was being too serious and brainy. Though, to be completely honest with you, I just felt sickened at the idea that some bohemian, guitar-playing, dumber-than-a-toilet architect-wannabe would finally link the two neurons in his brain and realize what the fuck I was talking about and actually use that pseudo-epiphany to lure some submental baton-twirler into bed.

It would bother me so much. I can almost see it, this guy, in his deep, masculine voice, going “You see, Mandy,” – these girls always have the stupidest names, right? But I’m sorry if your name is Mandy, not because of what I just wrote, but because your actual name is Mandy – and then he’d say, “This story here, even though it’s written in this humorous, light-hearted way, it’s actually a reflection on how pointless war is, it’s just a game. There’s so much suffering, so much death, and for what? Nothing! There’s so much beauty in the world, dammit! why can’t we focus on that? There’s so much beauty in this world… so much beauty in this country, in this city, in this crowded town-square, in these magnificent buildings, in this café, in these hands [caresses her hands], in this face [touches her face], in these beautiful brown eyes, these porcelain cheeks, this honey-coloured skin… in these soft lips… these strawberry… silky…. delicate… soft lips…” And they would kiss, and the girl would think “Oh my God! This guy’s so cute! Oh my God! Oh my God!” and when they’d finished making out or whatever, she’d go back home and go, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” and she’d call her friend, Sharon, and yell in that squeaky, irritating high voice, “Oh my God, you won’t believe it! You won’t believe it –eevit –eevit! I met this guyyyy! He’s so cute, and he’s really smart, and sensitive, and, like, totally gets me,” and they would talk for about five hours, give or take, and then they’d have to hang up because Sharon’s dad would come into her room and hit her. Too dark? I’m sorry… let’s say her mom would come into her room and tell her that dinner was ready.

But this is Mandy we’re talking about, so she’d be too excited to do anything else but be in a state of total euphoria, and so she’d star jumping on her bed and again with the “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” until she’d finally hit her head, get a concussion and shut the fuck up.

So, there you go, the German officer was implying that war is also a game. And he’s right, it’s a game. Somehow a more sophisticated, technical, and less retarded (yes, it is less retarded despite whatever you damn hippies say!) game than football. But it’s still a game. Something we use to fill our lives with purpose and meaning. Something to hold on so we can safely say “Heil mein Führer!” or “Pour la France!” or “Viva la Revolución!” without feeling stupid. But hey, in the end, it’s like anything else, you know. Whatever works is fine. And it works for them, so who the fuck are we to judge them?

So, there you go, it’s quite a story, isn’t it? Fun, charming, touching, and with a little twist at the end that makes it somewhat less stupid. So, in conclusion, fuck you bohemian, good-looking man! Now you need to find other ways to lure woman into bed –ha! But hey, it’s not all bad; you can always try this line: “Hey, could you come here, sit on my lap, and take a picture with me? [Why?] ´Cause I want to show Santa what I want for Christmas.” [Drum-beat] You didn’t like it? Go fuck yourself.