Monday, June 21, 2010

The Natural History of the Apocalypse? (with slightly unnerved postscript)

Part the First, started sometime last week:

I've been reading Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone/The Dream of the Red Chamber, and have oddly discovered that one of the primary themes of this enormous 18th-century Chinese novel is much the same as that of Anna Akhmatova's brilliant "Poem Without a Hero" (1942). Then I realized it also has a lot in common with the story of Marie Antoinette (since I just re-watched the movie last weekend, it's fresh in my memory), with Le Morte D'Arthur, with the chunk of the Bhagavad Gita I read most recently, with medieval Christian apocalyptic theology, and with the post-apocalyptic sci-fi of which I am so fond.

To put it in its most reductive terms, let's throw in Shakespeare (from Cymbeline): "Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." Or as one the few truly famous 20th-century American poets put it, "So Eden sank to grief/So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay." (Robert Frost, from the poem aptly titled "Nothing Gold Can Stay").

Or a personal favorite, from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "It is the blight that man was born for."

Then I was doing a little research on the fossil-hunters of the Victorian age (inspired largely by reading Dry Storeroom No. 1: the Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Robert Fortey), and that got me thinking about evolution. I don't know enough to argue the science coherently, except to say that I don't think there's any inherent contradiction between science and faith, so let's leave that to the side. Whether an attribute and/or instinct was put into us by our creation by a divine force, by the workings of evolution, or by a divine force working through science, is a question I can never know the answer to, although I personally tend to agree with Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason. That is, if there is a God, what we can "know" about him (as opposed to "believe") is through what he created, and whatever we learn from an objective scientific study of the natural world can only tell us more about that God and his intentions. (Use of male gender based on Methodist Sunday school, and morning laziness).

Now, just like with fossils: if you find the same themes recurring in completely different times and/or places, that's got to be meaningful. And we do find this recognition -- that everything passes away, no matter how immense or solid it seems -- in art from various time periods, from all over the world. So what popped into my head, from these trains of thought, is that perhaps human beings, in all times and places, have an instinctual understanding of entropy. Just like we seem to have some half-n-half conception of ourselves as individuals and as members of a group (neither lone animals, nor hive ones, but a hybrid: partly devoted to our own selfish self-interest, partly trying to connect with something "more" outside ourselves), the knowledge that nothing can last seems (practically) universal.

(That "practically" is there because, if I learned nothing else from literary study, it's the need for disclaimers!)

Of course, one doesn't really have to posit an actual "entropic instinct" shared by human animals to explain this. But it's fun to do: just like Freud with his "death drive," which is another way of saying the same thing. Where he saw a "drive," though, I just see people who have seen the reality of the situation, and are trying to deal with it in a world that tries to ignore that reality.

In lieu of an actual instinct, all it really takes is observant people of some sensitivity, looking at the world around them. People and animals age and die. The works of human technology -- buildings, roads, monuments -- are subject to time and the weather. Even certain individuals live in a historical period of relative stability, there are records of other places and times, folk tales set in bygone "once upon a times," family histories passed down -- something that will tell them that things have changed.

Certainly the Bible, from the Garden of Eden on, is full of examples to teach the unwary about the instability of nations and traditions. This is relevant because something like The Story of the Stone or Le Morte D'Arthur is about more than the personal entropy of loss and change (although they're there too): they're about the fact that there's a macrocosm, in which societies, nations, empires, all rise and fall and change, sometimes evolving into something totally different, sometimes disappearing altogether.

But despite the omnipresence of entropy in art and literature, both individuals and their larger societies tend to motivate themselves by repressing this fact, in small ways and large, operating as if they'll last forever, until it becomes impossible not to face it. Having this kind of doublethink in their minds, though, doesn't mean that, on some level, people don't realize the truth. Some individuals and some societies come up with ways to bridge this gap in relatively healthy ways. And some don't.

Personally, I’d say that right now we're living in a time when a lot of people are not dealing in a positive way with this inherent fact of human existence. Despite social choices that have accelerated the rate of change into a crazy whirligig of novelty, and a fetishization of change in the business world, too many people still seem to sincerely believe that certain of the underlying principles and structures they believe in exist as some kind of immutable law: just for one topical one, the idea that people of a certain social class, or race, or nationality will continue to be dominant, reaping certain benefits that others don't.

Part the Second:

I had this big chunk all written up, but realized I didn't have any conclusion to make about anything. So I set it aside temporarily. When I'd been talking about all the different places I've come across the theme of the impermanence of everything, no matter how solid it seems, I remembered a line of poetry, but had to track down which of my many books it was in, to cite the source. It's from Tulsidas, in Songs of the Saints of India:

"Many houses have collapsed;
Many houses are collapsing;
Many houses will collapse.
Says Tulsi, this is a bad way to be --
To see this and hear this and know this
And not let it really sink in." (p. 170)

So on Friday, before I got the correct Tulsidas quote into Part One, and before I could concoct some kind of point to the preceding, my home town was devastated by a tornado. The official pronouncement: "NOAA said tornado was EF4, with peak winds over 170 mph. The damage path was 1.1 miles wide, 10 miles long." Frankly, ten miles is about the length of the whole town!

Everyone who's there has said the photos don't even begin to show the scale of the destruction, but here's some photos from the local newspaper. If you scroll through, you'll see the one that really gives me a sense of perspective: "Wadena’s pool is reduced to rubble." That's where I learned to swim. Whoa! Unfortunately, the shots of all the trees and headstones knocked down at the cemetery, where I spent so many happy hours, are all on Facebook, and thus inaccessible from without. (NOTE: Yes, there were photos at the time, but I was being all ethical by not copying the photo, but now it's unavailable. Dead link. Argh!)

At any rate, I could hardly have asked for a better illustration of the theme that "houses are collapsing," however much we try not to let that fact sink in. Excuse me while I go compose a blog post about how some people win fortunes in the lottery and use it all to do good works, with no ill effects to anyone!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Internet Rumor Starts Here

Flipping through recent back issues of Entertainment Weekly with my morning coffee, I came across the startling news that there are TWO film versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the works right now. One is being produced by Disney, with David Fincher attached to direct (and let us ponder how strange the juxtaposition of Disney and David Fincher would once have seemed). The other is a co-production by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, with a script by the Clash of the Titans remake writer, and possibly directed by the guy who did Wanted (two movies I've never had the slightest interest in seeing).

So far, there's no word on the all-important casting of Captain Nemo (but thank Rishi and all else that is holy in life that the rumored starring of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has been debunked). Last summer, I pondered this very question, of who could play a "deeply embittered, morally ambiguous genius somewhere between the ages of 35 and 50," one the audience will be sympathetic toward, and who's described in the book as much finer-looking than I imagined from previous film versions.

Sometimes, the laziest and most obvious answer is, in fact, correct: I'm going to make a stand now that if one of these productions doesn't at least consider Shah Rukh Khan for the role, they are freakin' crazy people. He's the right age; he's got the right look; we know his English is fluent; and based on the more dramatic and/or straight-faced roles in his oeuvre, he could be totally awesome! Sure, people, take the gushing fangirl seriously....

But really! There's also the built-in appeal of having an iconic Indian character from classic European literature being played by an such an iconic Indian actor. SRK can do sympathetic, he can do morally ambiguous anti-heroic, and he can certainly do larger than life. If he weren't interested, having gotten his own sci-fi extravaganza off the ground, that's one thing -- but come on, someone should at least try.