As people who meet after a long separation

Hi, folks,

Here are some things I read, listened, or watched this past week. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Weeks 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |


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Week 5- ♦10♦

Short story: “Flesh”, by Elizabeth Taylor (The Devastating Boys, 1972)

Phyl is a middle-age married woman taking some days off from the pub she runs with her husband to spend on a beach to recuperate from an operation; Stanley is a widower on holidays. It’s the end of the tourist season, the two meet by chance, and bond over their fondness for heavy drinking in the hotel bar in the evenings. They are beyond falling in love and all that, but, somehow, they long to trespass.

Warmed by their drinks, and the still evening and the romantic sound of the sea idly turning over down below them, they became frustrated, both large, solid people, she much corseted and, anyhow, beginning to be painfully sunburnt across the shoulders, he with the confounded steering wheel to contend with.”

Taylor’s writing is both nuanced and rich in conveying physicality: the heat, Phyl’s massive body, her sunburnt flesh. I like the way Taylor goes swiftly in and out of the characters’ perspectives, making us share their intimacy (or lack thereof). Things don’t turn out exactly as they intend to, but the couple is brought closer together in unexpected ways.

My rating: ★★★★☆


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Short story: “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”, by Willa Cather (1900. Also in The Short Stories Of Willa Cather, 2007)

Hester and William Tavener are a married couple, living a hard-working life as farmers in the West of the United States. They have several boys, and, after all those years, their marriage “had become purely a business one, like that between landlord and tenant.  In her desire to indulge her boys she had unconsciously assumed a defensive and almost hostile attitude towards her husband.  No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly than did Hester with her husband on behalf of her sons.”

 

When the circus comes into town, Hester is determined to go against her husband’s wishes and let the boys go. When she shares with William her own story of going to a circus, they find out that they have been to the same event, many years ago, when they had not yet known each other.

This exchange of confidences tonight, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance.” This small coincidence and the unexpected discovery of a shared memory throws a new light into the way they see each other, and the relationship subtly changes: “For years they had talked of nothing else but butter and eggs and the prices of things, and now they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.”

Cather’s psychological insight into Hester’s renewed sense of herself, her marriage, and her husband is the highlight of this story for me: “Hester blew out the lamp and sat still in the dark a long time. She left the bill lying on the table where William had placed it. She had a painful sense of having missed something or lost something; she felt that somehow the year had cheated her.”

My rating: ★★★★☆


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Essay: Meditação sobre a obediência e a liberdade, by Simone Weil (1955, in: Oppression et liberté – 1933-1943)

In this short essay, Simone Weil meditates on obedience, freedom and revolution, as well as on the forces by which the majority is kept subjected to the minority in a given social organization. “The merciless need that kept and still keeps masses of slaves on their knees (…) is not spiritual; rather, it is analogous to all that is brutal in nature. And yet, it is apparently exercised by virtue of laws contrary to nature. It is as if, on the social scale, the gram prevailed over the kilo (…) That many human beings submit to one of them for fear of being killed by him is quite surprising; but how to understand that they remain submissive to the point of dying by his orders? When obedience carries at least as many risks as rebellion, how does it stand?

Weil argues that obedience and submission should be read through the idea of strength, rather than through the idea of necessity. “Some people, on the side that appeals to the masses, want to show that this situation is not only wicked, but also impossible, at least for the near or distant future. Others, on the side that wants to preserve order and privileges, want to show that the yoke weighs little, or even that it is consented. On both sides, a veil is placed on the radical absurdity of the social mechanism, instead of looking this apparent absurdity in the face and analysing it so as to find the secrets of the machine. Whatever the subject, there is no other method. Amazement is the father of wisdom, said Plato. Given that the majority obeys, even to the point of suffering and death, while the minority commands, it is not true, therefore, that the number of people means strength. The number, although the imagination leads us to think otherwise, means weakness. Weakness is on the side where one is hungry, where one is exhausted, on the side where one pleads, or trembles – not on the side where one lives well, where one assign graces, where one can threaten others. The contradiction, perhaps, is only apparent. Undoubtedly, at any time, those who command are less numerous than those who obey. But precisely because they are few in number, they form a set. The others, precisely because they are so numerous, are one, and one more, and so on. The power of a minority, therefore, rests, nevertheless, on the strength of the number. This minority is very prevalent in number over each of those who make up the majority’s herd.”

To Weil however, the organization of the masses is impossible to achieve – and, therefore, not able to subvert this power relation, because cohesion can only be established between a small number of human beings. Beyond that, we can only have a juxtaposition of individuals, and that lead to their weakness. “The powerful have no more vital interest than to prevent this crystallization of the submissive crowds – or, at least, because they cannot always prevent them, to make it as rare as possible. It may happen that an emotion stirs up a large number of unfortunate people at the same time; but almost always, that emotion, which was barely aroused, is suppressed by the feeling of hopeless helplessness. Maintaining this feeling of helplessness is a skilful policy on the part of the powerful. The human spirit is incredibly flexible, ready to imitate, and to fold under external circumstances. The one who obeys, the one whose movements, penalties, and pleasures are determined by others, feels inferior not by accident, but by nature. The man at the other end of the scale feels equally superior, and these two illusions reinforce each other. (…) Everything that contributes to giving those at the bottom of the social scale the feeling that they have a value is, to some extent, subversive. (…) Christianity, in its early days, was also dangerous. It did not inspire the poor, the slaves, to greed for goods and power, quite the opposite; rather, it gave them the feeling of an inner value that put them on the same level or even higher than the rich, and that was enough to endanger the social hierarchy.”

Weil argues that the social strength of the minority is necessarily brought about by lies. Likewise, everything that is highest in human life, every effort of love, is corrosive to the social hierarchy. Thinking can either be revolutionary, on the one hand, or counterrevolutionary, on the other. To the extent, however, that thinking can create a scale of values that is not of this world, it will be the enemy of the forces that dominate society. “The struggles between fellow citizens do not come from a lack of understanding or goodwill; they result from the nature of things and cannot be appeased, but only stifled by coercion. For someone who loves freedom, it is not desirable that they cease to exist, but only that they remain below a certain limit of violence.”

 


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Album: “Funeral”, by Arcade Fire (2004)

“Somethin’ filled up
My heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry
Now that I’m older
My heart’s colder
And I can see that it’s a lie
Children wake up
Hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust
(…)” Wake up

 

“(…)
You change all the lead
Sleepin’ in my head to gold
As the day grows dim
I hear you sing a golden hymn
The song I’ve been trying to sing
Purify the colors, purify my mind
Purify the colors, purify my mind
And spread the ashes of the colors
Over this heart of mine” Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

 

“(…)
Ice has covered up my parents hands
Don’t have any dreams don’t have any plans
Growin’ up in some strange storm
Nobody’s cold, nobody’s warm
I went out into the night
I went out to find some light
Kids are dyin’ out in the snow
Look at them go, look at them go
And the power’s out in the heart of man
Take it from your heart, put in your hand
What’s the plan?
(…)” Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)

 

“(…)
People say that your dreams are the only things that save ya
Come on, baby, in our dreams
We can live our misbehavior
Every time you close your eyes (lies, lies)
(…)” Rebellion (Lies)


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Film: Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019, IMDb)

Bacurau is a fictional North-eastern village in the Brazilian outback, named after a local nighthawk. The village has been left to its own devices by the municipal administration, and they are plagued by food shortages, water crisis, and never-ending political tensions. The local matriarch, Dona Carmelita, has just died, and there is an unsettling sense that something bad is going to happen to the village.

Mendonça Filho and Dornelles manage to create an atmosphere where everything seems at once familiar and strange; we seem to be watching a version of the current times unfold on the scream, but it is a version with a dystopic twist.

All of a sudden, Bacurau is taken out of Google Maps, and the locals’ mobile phones no longer work. Much like the villagers, we feel a growing sense of unease, as Bacurau is slowly turned into a hunting area for foreign tourists, mediated by the local elite – and the villagers are the ones to be hunted down. We find out that a recreational slaughter militia has travelled to the region to hunt the local villagers (whom they see as ‘savages’) as their prey.

Mendonça Filho and Dornelles play with B movie aesthetics, blending horror and western elements to build a powerful allegory of imperialism and of far-right ideology, where the villagers are seen as lesser-valued human beings, whom the local elites and the foreign tourists feel entitled to use either as sources of money or as playthings in a human safari.

I loved the way the directors manage to maintain a kind of radical strangeness throughout the film: the water leaking from a coffin, a drone that looks like a flying saucer, the stampede of horses during the night, the clueless militia killing humans for pleasure while complaining that the villagers are savages.

The museum of Bacurau, with its small altar full of rifles and pictures of beheaded enemies from ancestral struggles, is a reminder that the villagers will eventually rise up and resist. And I loved the way how the film never tries to make it easy for you: it revels in its contradictions, its anger, its taste of revenge, and its final bloodbath.

  • Running time: 132 min
  • My rating: ★★★★★
  • Favourite scenes: the stampede of horses, the fury of the queer guerrilla villager Lunga

That’s all for now, folks. What have you been reading/ listening/ watching this week? Tell me about it.

Yours truly,

J.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Eve (circa 1530), detail

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