Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Top 10 Films About Dreams

Inspired by the current success of Inception, here are what I judge to be the best films dealing with dreams and architectures of the mind, rated in descending order, not necessarily by their strength as films in general (otherwise Eyes Wide Shut would be much higher and The Cell at the bottom), but as "dream films".

1. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch. 2001. Critical approval: 81%. A dream-fable of Hollywood upturned by cruel reality, and a film that Lynch was clearly destined to make. The dream comprises the first two thirds of the story, and is made sense of by the devastating third part, a complete analysis of which can be found at Salon. Being inside the mind of Diane Selwyn amounts to a heady experience no other film has offered; I've seen this masterpiece many times, never tire of it, and never will. The manner in which various people from Diane's life fill the roles in her dream shows a brilliant understanding of projection and how dreams work in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. And the lip-synced Llorando, precipitating the intrusion of reality, is one of the most cherished musical moments in the history of film.

2. Amy's Choice, Simon Nye. 2010. It usually doesn't make sense to mix TV with film rankings, but this episode of Doctor Who is such a work of art it claims second place. Here the Doctor and his companions find themselves flicking back and forth between two dreams, one of which they are told is reality, and they are supposed to figure out which is which. The figure of the Dream Lord is a brilliant creation, a manifestation of the Doctor's own subconscious, his shadow self forcing him to see things about himself he can't stand. In the end, Amy's choice is a choice between the Doctor and her boyfriend more than between dream scenarios, a welcome introspective drama in a season dominated by themes of fairy tales and weird imagination. See my review for more details.

3. Inception, Christopher Nolan. 2010. Critical approval: 87%. A dream heist team is hired to implant an idea in the mind of a corporate executive so subtly that he will believe it's his own, and decide to allow his financial empire to dissolve. The idea must be planted on a deep level of the subconscious, a third-level dream -- a dream within a dream within a dream -- where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up and falling into limbo escalate exponentially. Convoluted, action-packed, but with an emotional side-story too, it's a film only Christopher Nolan could have made, and definitely demands repeated viewings. As for making sense of what's going on, see my detailed plot analysis.

4. Open Your Eyes, 1997. Alejandro Amenábar. Critical approval: 84%. A disfigured man chooses to kill himself and be preserved cryogenically in order to live out pleasant fantasies, but gets more than he bargained for as his catatonic dreams become nightmares. As with Inception (#3), it's not always clear what's real and imagined: does César's dream start after he passes out on the sidewalk, or after his earlier car crash -- or is the entire film a dream? Identities are confused, the roles of César's lady friends swap, and he kills the wrong one thinking she's the right one. Avoid the American remake, Vanilla Sky, at all costs, where higher production values, actors like Cameron Diaz, and other atrocities rob the story of the original's graceful etherealness.

5. Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick. 1999. Critical approval: 77%. Based on the 1926 novella, Dream Story, in which a man attends a bizarre orgy that parallels the dream of his wife going on at the same time. Alice Hartford's fantasy, involving adulterous sex with an endless crowd of strangers, is never actually portrayed on screen -- only related tearfully when her husband returns home from the orgy -- but it grounds the story to the extent that Bill Hartford's reality has a constant dreamscape quality to it, as he's been obsessing another of his wife's fantasies anyway. Kubrick's film is at heart about the compulsive power of dreams and what perfectly normal people are willing to seek out in order to live their obsessions. And as Bill Hartford says in the end, "no dream is ever just a dream."

6. Waking Life, Richard Linklater. 2001. Critical approval: 80%. Released the same year as Mulholland Drive, as if to declare a new wave of artistry at the dawn of a new millenium, this head trip makes a philosopher out of you like it or not. The anonymous main character stands for us as he proceeds in a dream state that gradually becomes clearer, and he enters discussions about reality and the meaning of life. André Bazin enthusiasts will be pleased here, as Waking Life celebrates the idea of the "holy moment", which invites philosophical curiosity as means to a higher consciousness. The portrayal of potheads and slackers is especially brilliant, as their minds aren't slack at all. The critical point of the film is that reality is but a single instant which the brain falsely reconstructs as time, not itself novel philosophy perhaps, but in context this all adds up to a unique look at dreams.

7. The Cell, Tarsem Singh. 2000. Critical approval: 46%. A psychotherapist enters the mind of a serial killer and is pulverized by his warped universe. This isn't the best movie you'll ever see (and Jennifer Lopez is a hindrance), but it does contain some of the most disturbing architectures of the mind ever put on celluloid. Vincent D'Onofrio plays the killer, and in his inner world we see how he was terribly abused as a child, and has now become king of a world in which women are dressed up and painted to look like white dolls and tortured in hideous contraptions out of a new age Inquisition. Watch this for a taste. The resolution is fairly pedestrian, but the grueling journey to get there makes it worthwhile.

8. What Dreams May Come, Vincent Ward. 1998. Critical approval: 55%. A blazing canvas of the afterlife, where the experience of heaven or hell is shaped by one's dreams. Yes, Robin Williams stars (strike one), and the "love conquers all" theme too melodramatic (strike two), but the transcendental concepts are ragingly effective, and the imagery at every moment stunning. Chris' heaven is a literal paint job, and parts of hell are straight out of Dante's Inferno. The film is about reincarnation, though Christianized. Side note: be sure to watch the alternate ending on the DVD, which is viscerally faithful to the book, showing Chris and his wife reborn in a third world (among the pain and screams of childbirth) in order to pay off their debts of karma, instead of America again, as toddlers, just to have fun meeting each other again for the first time.

9. The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry. 2006. Critical approval: 70%. About a young man's inability to reconcile his dreams with reality, and his childlike infatuation with a woman who shares his creative interests. Gondry serves up a lot of eye candy here -- cellophane-like water, cardboard television sets, giant rubber body parts, animated miniatures, and other forms of bizarreness that serve as the "building blocks" of dreams. As the film progresses, the line between his dreams and waking state blurs in direct proportion to his romantic obsession, and he tries to hurt himself (physically and emotionally) as a child would. This is the film of frustrated dreams, of self-invention -- he fancies himself a gourmet cook, a lover, and a music-maker, while in the real world slagging away at an unrewarding job (the production of nude calendars). A film Michel Gondry was made for, relying on inventive visuals.

10. Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky. 2000. Critical approval: 78%. A searing trip down the rabbit hole of drug addiction and dream worlds of delusion and desperation. Sarah is an elderly woman who gets hooked on amphetamine pills (by day) and sedatives (by night) in order to lose weight so she can appear as a guest on a TV game show; her son is addicted to the heroin he deals in hopes of opening a fashion store for his girlfriend. Both dreams are crushed: Sarah's TV invitation never comes, and she ups her dosage until she's hallucinating and must be hospitalized; Harry's drug business goes bad, his addiction gets out of hand, and his arm must be amputated; Marion prostitutes herself for money. The unhappy ending shows each "dreamer" curled in a fetal position after a climax that leaves the viewer stunned by its manic fury as much as by its brilliant symbolism.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


The most curious thing about Inception has been its reception. While generally positive, it's been overpraised and savaged by loud minorities, the former by those who see philosophical profundity in Deepak Chopra, the latter by those whose expectations were too high or who insist on judging the film by the wrong yardstick. This is a heist movie, not epic drama, and one should no more expect a Godfatheresque thriller than fault it for not being so. The one legitimate complaint that can be leveled is the remarkable lack of character development over its two and a half hour length. But even that's a small crime in a film whose important strengths lie elsewhere.

I won't waste much time on the plot, since I've already broken it down completely, only to reemphasize that it's not nearly as inconsistent as some believe, though Nolan does drop the ball on a couple of points. The time differential on the level two dream isn't correct, and by rights Arthur should have woken up on level one when his team of dreamers missed the first kick. As far as I can tell, everything else lines up properly. With regards to the ending, there seems no end to debate. Did Cobb wake up in reality and go home to his kids? Did he choose to stay down in limbo? Did he dream the entire mission on the plane? I favor the second option since upon reuniting with his children, they appear exactly the same as he remembers them (same clothes, posture, age, etc). It's not clear whether or not the totem tops, and Nolan was obviously leaving the matter ambiguous. Either the first or second scenario is satisfying since the mission is successful in either case, though the second has the added benefit of tragedy. The third is lame, and I rather doubt was intended to take seriously. [Edit: I now accept the first reality option, since it has been pointed out that Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB).]

Regarding the structure of dreams, Inception takes the opposite approach of What Dreams May Come, serving up clearly defined labyrinths, mazes, and landscapes which conform to the laws of physics (when things are going well), purposely designed this way by an architect (Ariadne, played by Ellen Page) so that when the subject's mind is invaded, everything will seem "normal" and not prompt defensive reactions from the subconscious. Nolan is hardly suggesting that dreams usually function this way; they are imposed this way on a victim for a specific purpose. Dramatically this works to great effect, and I love the minimalist feel to Inception's dream architecture, especially the preponderance of greys and blacks (again, opposite the blazing rainbow colors in What Dreams May Come), which go well with the gritty action sequences.

I also adore the story's premise: that the "protagonists" of the Inception team are basically on a mission to destroy a decent man (or at least his financial world), though a critic like Carson Lund is nonplussed, complaining that "the emotionality that drives this complex operation is cruel" and that "any rewards the team receives after their inevitable success are at the expense of ruining one man's personal and professional life, pounding into his head that his father never loved him and was disappointed that he tried to repeat his own path". But that's a strength of the story, not a weakness, making us pause before shelling out too much sympathy for the lead character (Di Caprio's Cobb) who is tormented by his wife's suicide, for which he was tragically responsible.

The strongest indicator of the film's success is that it's over before you know it. Even on second viewing I couldn't believe I spent two and a half hours in my seat -- it's as if that seat had been a lower level dream with the film taking up a fraction of its time. Surely that's the most fitting praise for Inception.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wind Through the Cradle

Carson Lund, former employee of the Nashua Public Library, and who authors the blog, Are the Hills Going to March Off?, has made a short film along with Michael Basta (another ex-library employee). The film is called Wind Through the Cradle, is 27 minutes long, and may be watched here. The synopsis:
"A retired writer (Clifford Blake) who once had a passionate intellectual following has since retreated to the woods to live in complete isolation. Wind Through the Cradle involves the arrival of his distant relative, a young journalist (Natasha Mogilevskaya) for an unspecified source who comes to immerse herself in his lifestyle and probe his inner being in an attempt to bring his enigma to public light. A tension builds as the journalist stays for longer than intended, which builds to a deeply ambiguous climax. Told with languorous narrative rhythms, minimal dialogue, and a graceful observational camera, Wind Through the Cradle is a mysterious examination of the limits of familial bonds in the foreboding silence of the forest."
Check it out. Carson generally has fine cinematic tastes, though must be forgiven for his misguided hatred of Christopher Nolan's Inception.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception: Plot Analysis

This isn't a review of Inception but a careful outline of the plot. Many complain that the film is confusing to follow (on first viewing anyway) and even that it violates its own rules of the dream world. While I don't think it's a fraction as confusing or inconsistent as some critics make it out to be, there are a few points where I could use more closure. Please leave comments if you think any part of this analysis is askew, or if other parts of the plot demand clarity.

I'll review the film later, but for now simply note that while it's very good, I don't agree with Doug Chaplin that it's Nolan's best, certainly not as good as The Dark Knight, and perhaps not even Memento though admittedly close. My one problem with Inception is the remarkable lack of character development over two and a half hours. The actors do a fine job with what they're given, but aside from Leo Di Caprio's Cobb, we don't get to know them well. (In stark contrast, The Dark Knight's two and a half hour length gave us an intimate look at almost every character.) But that's an admittedly small complaint, given that the film's strengths lie elsewhere. And Doug is right about the tempus fugit effect of watching it: it certainly doesn't feel like a long film at all -- almost as if we're dreaming it ourselves.


The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive (Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cilian Murphy) so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a very deep level, a third-level dream -- a dream within a dream within a dream -- where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up or falling into limbo escalate dramatically.

The level one traffic dream is dreamed by Yusuf (Dileep Rao) on the airplane (level zero). Saito is shot on this level and starts dying. The team captures Fischer, and Eames (shapechanged as Fischer's right hand man, Browning) tells him they've been torturing him (Browning) to get the combination to his father's safe, and that his father left an alternate will in the safe allowing him to dissolve the empire if he so chooses. The first seed is planted: that Fischer may not wish to follow in his father's footsteps. Fischer's defensive projections zero in on the Inception team, who flee in a van. They are relentlessly chased and shot at in busy traffic. Yusuf stays behind on this level to keep driving the van as the rest of the team go to sleep and enter the level two dream. He will signal down to level two when he's ready to initiate a kick by driving the van off a bridge.

The level two hotel dream is dreamed by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the van on level one. Saito continues dying on this level from the previous gun wound. Cobb (posing as "Mr. Charles") convinces Fischer that the Inception team are Fischer's own defensive projections to help fend of dream invaders, and that Fischer's actual defensive projections are the enemy invaders; they encounter Fischer's projection of Browning, whom Fischer accuses of working with the kidnappers and wanting the alternate will for himself. The Browning projection says he can't just let Fischer destroy the empire by rising to his father's last taunt -- to build something for himself. Fischer's subconscious is feeding these ideas given by Eames on the first level, so in effect Fischer is by now giving himself the ideas. The second seed is planted: that Fischer can create something for himself. The Inception team succeeds in recruiting Fischer on this level, convincing him that Browning isn't telling the whole truth, and pretend to use Browning's subconscious to enter level three and determine his motives (but of course they're still using Fischer's subconscious). Arthur stays behind on level two to watch over the rest of the team as they go to sleep in the hotel room and enter the level three dream. He will signal down to level three when he hears Yusuf's signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by detonating the charges he planted in the ceiling of the room below, bringing the dreamers through the floor.

The level three snow-fort dream is dreamed by Eames (Tom Hardy) in the hotel room on level two, who then stays behind on level three when Cobb and Ariadne unexpectedly have to enter limbo in order to retrieve Fischer when he is killed by Mal. They hook up to the dreamware and navigate their way to limbo as Cobb had learned how to do long ago with Mal. Eames will signal down to limbo when he hears Arthur's signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by planting explosives on the building to make it drop. They are only guessing that limbo might function as a "level four dream" this way in being responsive to kicks. Saito finally dies on this level after Cobb and Ariadne go to limbo.

The limbo level is dreamed by no one, since it is a place of shared consciousness. (On levels one to three, each dreamer's dream is filled by Fischer's subconscious.) It contains nothing other than decaying remains of whatever was built by those who had been there before, such as Cobb and Mal. Cobb and Ariadne find Mal, who gives up Fischer only after extracting a promise from Cobb to remain with her in limbo. Ariadne learns from Cobb that one can escape limbo by dying in it (he tells how he and Mal freed themselves from limbo after fifty years by throwing themselves in front of a train), and so she pushes Fischer off a building and then throws herself off likewise, not bothering to wait for the kick from Eames on level three (and they were never quite sure they could be kicked out of limbo as in "regular" level dreams anyway). Cobb remains behind, telling Ariadne that Saito must have died by now and he needs to find him (lest Saito succumb to the lure of limbo and decide to stay there forever, believing it to be reality; Cobb of course needs him to clear him of charges so that he can go home). Ariadne warns him not to lose himself as he did before with Mal.

Back on level three Eames resuscitates Fischer with the defibrillator (after Ariadne frees him from limbo by killing him) who then enters the hospital room and meets his dying father. The third and most critical seed is planted, thus completing the mission: that Fischer Sr. never wanted his son to be like him. Note that Saito cannot be resuscitated the same way since he has been dying on all three levels of the dream, unlike the case of Fischer, whose bodies remain intact on levels one and two; and even if Saito could be resuscitated this way, he is still lost below in limbo. He becomes trapped there, believing it to be reality (like Mal did). Cobb also loses himself in limbo, until he eventually finds a very aged Saito and kills/liberates him.

So when the mission is completed on level three (Fischer meeting his dying father), the kick from level two (the elevator falling down the shaft) snaps Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level three dream and they wake up on level two. Then the kick from level one (the van hitting the water) snaps Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level two dream and they wake up on level one. Finally, after a few days of milling about on level one, Arthur, Eames (still shapechanged as Browning on this level), Ariadne, and Fischer get "kicked" up to reality when the sedation wears off on the plane. Cobb and Saito wake up too, but they had to wait many years since they were stranded down in limbo.

Note: The first kick on level one -- the van falling off the bridge -- was missed, as the mission was still unfulfilled and no kicks from levels three or two had taken place yet. The team would be given a second chance when the van hit the water, but because the level one dreamers were now in freefall, the level two dreamers became suspended likewise, thereby requiring Arthur to come up with a new and creative kick for zero-g environment (the elevator falling down the shaft). (The van's freefall didn't effect the gravity of the level three dream, only the level immediately below.)

Note: It appears that kicks can be resisted. (1) When the the first kick on level one is missed (the van falling off the bridge), it at least should have woken up Arthur, since he was awake (and not dreaming like the others) on level two. (2) Similarly, the kick on level three (the fort crumbling and falling) should have woken up Cobb from limbo (assuming that one can get kicked out of limbo like this, which the team is unsure of), but didn't. Obviously Arthur needed more time on level two to initiate a kick there, and Cobb needed to find Saito in limbo. The implication is that (trained dream invaders?) can resist kicks.

Regarding time: We are told that ten hours of real time (on the airplane) translates into seven days in a level one dream, six months in a level two dream, and ten years in a level three dream (and God only knows how much in limbo). So when the van has a mere (three?) seconds to hit the water, that should translate into one minute on level two and twenty minutes on level three. We are indeed told that the team on level three has twenty minutes to complete their mission after they miss the first kick, but we're told that Arthur has three minutes (not one) to initiate a kick on level two -- and it sure seems like it takes longer than three minutes (let alone one) for him to bind everyone up and rig the elevator.

Finally, the ending is left wonderfully ambiguous, since it's not clear if the totem tops or not. Did Cobb stay down in limbo or go home? Given Chris Nolan's penchant for the tragic, I prefer to think the former. Notice that when he finally meets his kids, they appear exactly as he remembers them, in the same clothes, not having aged a day. I believe that Cobb decided to remain in a dream with his wife and kids, rather than in reality with his kids alone.

UPDATE (7/21/10) Here's my actual review.

UPDATE (7/23/10): I stand by everything said in this post except the last paragraph. Eagle-eyed Vic Holtreman points out that at the end Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB). So Cobb's homecoming is probably real after all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fake Reviews

Michael Bird mentions the BBC report of an historian required to pay libel damages and costs for writing fake amazon reviews disparaging the works of others and praising his own. It makes me wonder about the risk of certain "guest" reviews I have allowed published on this blog (see here and here).

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (IV) -- Treachery and Loyalty in an Honor-Shame Context

In the last post we looked at the theme of homoeroticism in James Clavell's Shogun and considered commonalities between the medieval Japanese and ancient Mediterraneans. In this post I want to examine the tricky relationship between treachery and loyalty in honor-shame cultures. If the reader of Shogun is struck by the imperative of loyalty to one's liege lord, it is just as striking that so many of the novel's characters are constantly scheming against their superiors, and backbiting each other left and right, saying one thing and thinking another. What gives?

In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, who doesn't hesitate to point out Clavell's errors when he sees them, concedes that on the point of duplicity and treachery Clavell understands the Japanese mindset quite well:
"Clavell was scarcely deviating from historical reality in his heavy reliance on the theme of duplicity to build the plot and create the driving suspense of his novel. While this undeniably perpetuates the Western stereotype of the Japanese (and other Asians) as 'inscrutable', one must realize that the stereotype was in full flower in the era of Shogun. Consider the advice of the pilot Rodrigues to Blackthorne: 'Never forget Japmen're six-faced and have three hearts. It's a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for all the world to see, another in his breast to show his very special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, which is never known to anyone except himself alone'... There is little doubt that both treachery and loyalty were the central themes of sixteenth-century Japanese politics, and Clavell can scarcely be accused of exaggerating them." ("The Struggle for the Shogunate", pp 52-53)
Smith attributes much of Japanese duplicity and treachery to the transitional era of c. 1600, "from the utter chaos of the mid-sixteenth century to the amazingly stable and well-ordered regime of the Tokugawa shogunate a century later. It is precisely this process of transition that helps us better understand the seemingly contradictory mixture of a country which is alternatively described as in total political chaos and at the same time a paragon of law and order (p 54)". But that's a largely superficial answer, because the issue transcends politics. Rodrigues' remark is a general one suggesting people conditioned more by culture than politics.

To me, the issue is pressed home most strongly in chapter 34, when Toranaga, about to invite the daimyo Yabu to be one of his vassals, asks Mariko for advice:
Toranaga: "What's your opinion of Yabu?"

Mariko: "Yabu-san's a violent man with no scruples whatsoever. He honors nothing but his own interests. Duty, loyalty, tradition, mean nothing to him. His mind has flashes of great cunning, even brilliance. He's equally dangerous as an ally or enemy."

Toranaga: "All commendable virtues. What's to be said against him?"
On the face of it, this is rather astounding praise for a soon-to-be vassal. In a culture that values honor, duty, loyalty, and tradition above everything else, why would someone commend the precise opposite in a subordinate he needs to rely on so heavily? Toranaga is just as aware as we are (as readers) that Yabu is a backbiting shark who's constantly itching to splash Toranaga's head on the ground even as he's drawn into alliance with him.

Retainers and vassals are always walking a tightrope in honor-shame cultures, keeping their lords' interests at heart enough to not incur wrath while keeping their own interests even closer, but discreetly so as not to arouse undue suspicion, yet still enough to insure their own gains. Lords like Toranaga know the system perfectly, and as long as their subordinates mind their interests to the appropriate degree and give all due outward displays of respect, they don't begrudge duplicity in their subjects -- in fact, if they're smart, they stand to gain a great deal by encouraging such duplicity and self-serving interests. Retainers can do a lot of dirty work for them, siphon off anger that would otherwise be directed at the lord, exploit others for profit, and other activity that carries dishonorable risk.

Looked at this way, treachery is simply the other coin side of honor-shame loyalty. One calls forth the other. Human beings are self-serving creatures, after all, and in a culture that has strong loyalist mechanisms to contravene that inclination, treachery will out in other ways -- and fiercely. It makes for constantly precarious relationships: Toranaga never trusts Yabu, who indeed doesn't get through a day without contemplating murdering or betraying him to get ahead; Omi is just as hell-bent on killing Yabu (though Yabu is oblivious to this, thinking his nephew a genuine loyalist). While lords like Toranaga of course need truly loyal retainers (like Hiro-Matsu) as their closest confidents, they also need sharks like Yabu to obtain goals otherwise out of reach. But the sharks have to be shrewd. Shrewd enough not to get caught, and shrewd enough to make everything seem loyal and honorable. In the character of Yabu, Clavell portrayed this phenomenon better than anything I've read in any work of literature.

Insofar as biblical parallels go, it's difficult to light on them for the obvious reason that one doesn't portray treachery where loyalty is expected, save in places where (shameful) treachery is the issue at hand (as in the case of Judas and Peter's thrice denial of Jesus). And the biblical writers don't get into the minds of their protagonists the way a modern novelist like Clavell does so well. Yet biblical specialists have been using the duplicity model to help us understand treachery in various texts. For instance, in the parable of The Dishonest Steward, we find a master commending the dishonest behavior of his own manager who cheats him, and at Antioch we see how the pillars backstabbed Paul despite the "agreement" made in Jerusalem.

In the next and final post, I'll wrap up this series and suggest what a novel like Shogun can help teach us about biblical values.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bill Arnal Reviews Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror

Check it out at RBL. Readers will recall my own review for The Nashua Public Library blog, and of course there was the colorful review on this blog by Leonard Ridge.

Here's Arnal's commentary on Crossley's Context-Group bashing:
"...Crossley goes after the Context Group for promoting Orientalist scholarship (disclosure: I am a member of the Context Group, though not an active one). It is, in the first place, unclear why this particular group of scholars is being singled out for scrutiny when there are so many potential foci for Crossley's analyses; the work of the Context Group (as Crossley admits at points) is hardly consistent in its Orientalism, nor hardly the most egregious example of such an approach. Crossley's point is certainly well taken that broad characterizations of 'Mediterranean' culture as, for example, rather timelessly based on honor-shame tend to play into and confirm stereotypes about a contemporary 'clash of civilizations.' But does this have any real bearing on the motivations of the scholars who reconstruct such anthropological models? Are such motivations even relevant? Indeed, does the potential misuse of these models (even by their own authors) have any implications at all either for their accuracy or their utility in the analysis of ancient Mediterranean cultural artifacts (which is, after all, what they are being used for)? Crossley needs to provide satisfactory answers to these questions."
Bill is one of the panelists who will be reviewing Crossley's book in Atlanta this November (the others being Mark Goodacre, Zeba Crook, and Roland Boer). I'm looking forward to the session. Zeba Crook is a Context Group member and will naturally have some interesting things to say. I didn't know that Bill himself was a (non-active) member of the group until reading this review.

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (III) -- Homoeroticism in an Honor-Shame Context

In the last post we looked at the theme of love in James Clavell's Shogun, and saw that it was about duty and attachment more than affection, just as it was for ancient Jews and Christians. We turn now to homoeroticism. What parallels do we see between medieval Japan and the ancient Mediterranean?

The issue is addressed at a memorable point in the novel (in chapter 20). The English pilot John Blackthorne has just been granted an audience with the future Shogun, Lord Toranaga, who then departs and leaves him in the care of a few guards and ladies, in particular the lady Mariko, his interpreter. Conversation turns to matters of pillowing (sex), about which Blackthorne is very embarrassed, but Mariko and the ladies are concerned that he isn't getting enough sex and so offer to send him a woman or indeed many women. He grows increasingly uncomfortable by the bluntness and lack of delicacy, and Mariko misconstrues his lack of enthusiasm as a preference for boys.
"Oh! Perhaps - perhaps you would prefer a boy?"


"A boy. It's just as simple if that's your wish." Her smile was guileless, her voice matter-of-fact.


"What's the matter?"

"Are you seriously offering me a boy?"

"Why, yes, Anjin-san. What's the matter? I only said we'd send a boy here if you wished it."

"I don't wish it!" Blackthorne felt the blood in his face. "Do I look like a God-cursed sodomite?"

His words slashed around the room. They all stared at him transfixed. Mariko bowed abjectly, kept her head to the floor. "Please forgive me. Here some men want boys sometimes. I foolishly presumed that your customs were the same as ours."

The samurai leader, Kazu Oan, was watching angrily. He was charged with the barbarian's safety and with the barbarian's health and he had seen, with his own eyes, the incredible favor Lord Toranaga had shown to the Anjin-san, and now the Anjin-san was furious. "What's the matter with him?" he asked challengingly, for obviously the stupid woman had said something to offend his very important prisoner.

Mariko explained what had been said and what the Anjin-san had replied. "I really don't understand what he's irritated about, Oan-san."

Oan scratched his head in disbelief. "He's like a mad ox just because you offered him a boy?"


"So sorry, but were you polite? Did you use a wrong word, perhaps?"
Homosexual practices were widespread in medieval Japan and entirely respectable, just as they were in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly Greece. In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, often critical of Shogun's portrayal of Japanese culture, acknowledges that on this point Clavell gets it right, noting further that homosexuality was particularly esteemed as training for samurai warriors, again comparable to the ancient Spartans:
"Although in general homosexual love was merely accepted without censure among the samurai, one does find in certain instances a positive and idealistic justification of homosexual practice as useful training for a warrior. A homosexual relationship was seen as a sort of tutorship in Bushido, with the younger lover imitating the older in the cultural and martial arts, much as among the warriors of ancient Sparta. In particular, such relationships were considered invaluable for teaching the virtue of loyalty, and samurai lovers generally proved dependable comrades in battle, loyal vassals, and trustworthy bureaucrats." ("Consorts and Courtesans", p 112)
Medieval Japan, in fact, is probably the closest analog we can find to the ancient Mediterranean with regards to homoeroticism. Or at least to the ancient pagans. What about the Jews and Christians?

There is no uniform view of male homoeroticism in the Judeo-Christian bible (and it is studiously silent on the question of female homoeroticism, depending on how one reads Rom 1:26). There are texts from the Holiness Code of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, which speak of one who "lies the lying down of a woman" -- probably referring to men who "take it up the ass" -- and demands that both the penetrator and the penetrated be put to death. Paul echoes this in Romans (1:27), affirming that men who engage in homosexual activity "deserve to die" (Rom 1:32), but before this also makes an unprecedented and ambiguous remark about women who "exchange natural intercourse for unnatural" -- which could refer to women who either "like to be on top" of other women or "take it up the ass" from men. Clearly there is a strand of Jewish tradition, which an apostle like Paul affirms and goes further, that is hostile to homosexual practices and/or anal intercourse.

Of course, the existence of a regulation like Lev 18:22 and 20:13 doesn't mean that reality always conformed to it. There is the well-known case of Jonathan and David (I Sam 18:1 and II Sam 1:26), where the latter speaks of the former's love to him being "greater than the love of a woman". Jonathan's "delight" in David (I Sam 19:1) recalls Shechem's earlier "delight" in Dinah (Gen 34:19), where the same word (kaphets) refers to sexual delight, and his asking David to "go out into the field" (I Sam 20:11) evokes the place where lovers go when they want to be alone (as in the blatantly erotic Song of Songs, 7:11). Jonathan and David may have shared the same kind of relationship as Achilles and Patroclus, and it's no accident that their love occurs in the context of "comradeship in arms". In the ancient Mediterranean, like medieval Japan, homoeroticism was especially taken for granted in military contexts. That still leaves the question as to why Israelites eventually developed taboos against homoeroticism, to be followed (at least in some circles) by later Jews and Christians.

The answer hinges on purity. Homoeroticism, like incest and bestiality, became viewed as morally impure to the extent it was seen as almost coterminous with idolatry (certainly Paul is leveling his diatribe against the pagan faction in Rome, reminding them how their godless heritage convicts them). Many scholars emphasize that in honor-shame cultures, the only thing offensive about men having sex with men is when it involves men of equal status, thereby forcing one of the males into the passive role reserved for women, boys, or men of lower social class. That's true, but it's not the full story. The Holiness Code demands that the "macho" penetrator be put to death as much as the "effeminate" one who takes it up the ass. And it's not just the two men who contract uncleanliness, but the whole land of Israel. Purity laws (whether ritual, like regulations for corpse preparation and menstrual blood, or moral, like the one under consideration) were designed to keep Israel separate from the "pollution" of unholy Canaan. In the case of Lev 18:22, the prohibition follows that of 18:21, which forbids worship of Molech, who had a fertility goddess consort named Ashtoreth; in pagan shrine prostitution, anal sex was viewed as an offering to the goddess. This background likely accounts for the origins of the fierce taboo against Israelite men who engage in the "lying down of a woman". It was, in a word, idolatry.

It remains significant that aside from Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27, the bible has nothing to say about homoeroticism (in I Cor 6:1, malakos refers to the "soft", or men who "pretty themselves up", often for heterosexual as much as homosexual exploits; and arsenokoites refers to some form of sexual exploitation too, though again not necessarily homosexual). The Holiness Code is a strand of Israelite tradition, and Paul is one apostle. Any "homophobia" on the part of early Jews and Christians had little to do with sexual ethics in any case, and a western prude like John Blackthorne could hardly have been reared in a culture that produced the Song of Songs or esteemed a character like David. The texts of Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27 later became co-opted by western sexual ethics, just as the virtue of love became understood in terms of affection more than duty.

In the next post we'll deal with the tricky relationship between loyalty and treachery.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (II) -- Love in an Honor-Shame Context

In the last post we looked at the theme of death in James Clavell's Shogun, particularly suicide and martyrdom, and teased out commonalities between Japan and the Mediterranean area. Now let's consider love. To what degree does this "alien" emotion in medieval Japan parallel the views of early Jews and Christians?

The love affair between John Blackthorne and Toda Mariko has to be one of the most memorable in modern literature. But it takes Mariko a long time to understand and experience love. Early in the novel (chapter 23) she explains to Blackthorne:
"Love is a Christian word, Anjin-san. Love is a Christian thought, a Christian ideal. We have no word for 'love' as I understand you to mean it. Duty, loyalty, honor, respect, desire, those words and thoughts are what we have, all that we need."
In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith critiques what Clavell (through Mariko) ascribes to the Japanese:
"If all Mariko means is spontaneous affection, as she seems to, then she is dead wrong, for simple love was one of the most ancient themes in Japanese literature and could be expressed with a rich vocabulary: the Japanese 'have no word for love' only in the sense that they have many, many words for love. Nor should the unsuspecting reader be lulled into thinking that the Japanese in 1600 AD, or at any other time in their history, were incapable of falling in love without instruction from abroad." ("Consorts and Courtesans: The Women of Shogun", p 106)
Yet Smith acknowledges in the same breath that "the rise of the samurai class and its concern with duty, loyalty, and the subjugation of personal emotions helps explain the decline in the status of love in medieval Japan" (p 107). There seems to be something about a code of honor-shame that represses feelings of affection, and in such contexts "love" carries a different emphasis.

In fact, Context Group members tell us that the biblical understanding of love is precisely about duty and attachment to a group or person: "there may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment, along with the outward behavior bound up with such attachment, that love entails" (Malina and Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 376). That's pretty close to what Mariko describes to Blackthorne, though she eschews the actual word "love". According to Malina and Pilch, Paul's famous triad in I Cor 13:13, "faith, hope, and love", is best translated as "personal loyalty, enduring trust in another, and attachment to another or others" (ibid). By the same token, "hate" involves dis-attachment, non-attachment, or indifference. There may or may not be feelings of repulsion, but severing ties and duties to some group or person is what it's really about. Thus Jesus' command to hate families (directed at his closest disciples) is seen to be synonymous with "leaving everything" -- leaving one's home and attaching oneself to Jesus and other disciples instead -- not necessarily accompanied by feelings of ill will.

My sense is that we should accept affection (the emotion we usually associate with love) as a universal phenomenon, but that it takes a back seat in honor-shame cultures, in favor of duty and loyalty. In that sense, I think Clavell gets it right through Mariko more than Smith allows. Yet there is an irony in her claim that "love [affection] is a Christian word". As we just saw, affection wasn't for the early Christians any more than the medieval Japanese. As with the theme of death, the question of love owes more to cultural values than religious ethics. For all the ways in which "Christianity" serves as a foil in Clavell's narrative, the precise foil is Anglo-European Christianity. Ancient (biblical) Christianity was more aligned with medieval Bushido than Clavell ever realized. Or at least in general terms: samurai obviously didn't go so far as to "love" and enjoy solidarity with their enemies.

In the next post we'll address the theme of homoeroticism.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (I) -- Death in an Honor-Shame Context

I'm rereading Shogun for what must be my fourth time since 1992, and as always am struck by parallels between the honor-shame values of medieval Japan and the ancient Mediterranean. Stephen Carlson and I have blogged certain comparisons in the past (Stephen about the proper understanding of grace, I about breaking promises), and now I want to consider what undoubtedly hits every reader of Clavell's novel as the strongest contrast between European and Japanese values in the sixteenth century: the view of death. To what degree does the "ready" acceptance of death in medieval Japan parallel the views of ancient Jews and Christians?

In Shogun samurai commit seppuku ("hari-kari", suicide by disembowelment) left and right, on the whim of a liege lord, and they do so proudly; it's an honorable way to die. As readers we share the point of view of the English pilot John Blackthorne, initially appalled at such nihilism, then gradually coming to appreciate the dignity in seppuku. In Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, Asian scholars William Lafleur and Henry Smith each critique this portrayal. While accepting the obviously common reality of seppuku at the time of 1600 AD, they believe Clavell has exaggerated aspects of the phenomenon. Lafleur claims that he has overstated a contrast between East and West, and Smith charges that it's too extreme to characterize the Japanese as warriors who actually look forward to death.

Let's take Lafleur's essay first, "Death and Karma in the World of Shogun":
"Over the years it has become the (sometimes unpleasant) task of Asianists like myself to raise red flags of warning when we observe too easy a contrast being made between the West and the various cultures of Asia. I am worried about the implication in Shogun that a continual fear of death grips the Western heart whereas virtually every man, woman, and child of sixteenth-century Japan could face death without flinching and even with pleasure." (p 72)
Reading this preface puts me in mind of James Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror, which sharply criticizes the work of the Context Group for (supposed) racist stereotypes of Middle-Eastern people. I wonder what Crossley would think of a novel like Shogun. At any rate, Lafleur continues:
"It is possible, however, to give quite a different interpretation to all the talk about 'the honor of a noble death' in the writings of late medieval Japan. The frequency and insistence of such references may, in fact, suggest that for the Japanese themselves such attitude could be made to appear 'natural' only through constant justification. The instinct for self-preservation has, after all, through millions of years remained fundamentally natural to creatures still in the prime of life. A fear of death was, then, as natural for the late medieval Japanese as it is for any other people; what is interesting about their society in that period was the elaboration of cultural mechanisms to contravene such natural fears. 'Bushido' is in many ways precisely this. But its existence as a code or norm does not in any way indicate that reality in the sixteenth century, for instance, was anything like the ideal or that large numbers of Japanese -- as Clavell depicts in Shogun -- walked willingly into death.

"We can blunt the edge of too sharp a contrast between Japan and the West by working from the other direction as well. It is helpful to remember that, although the West never created anything quite like the Bushido ritual of dying, there has always been an admiration for persons who had personally conquered death. Socrates' tranquil acceptance of hemlock inspired others to at least think about the possibility of 'dying philosophically'. Likewise, deeply rooted religious convictions carried many early Christians through martyrdom with relative tranquility and made it possible for some Jews to conceive their forced deaths as opportunities for 'sanctifying the name of God'." (pp 72-73)
The flaw in this critique is that ancient Greco-Roman philosophers and Jewish/Christian martyrs hail from the honor-shame milieu of the ancient Mediterranean, even if parts of the region may be thought of as "the West" to an Eastern scholar like LaFleur. Biblical specialists like David Seeley, Stephen Finlan, and Jeffrey Gibson have written about the noble death theme, particularly with respect to Paul's death metaphors. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes are understood to defeat tyranny by courageously dying for the Torah, and inspiring others to do so as well, and Greco-Roman philosophers died in order to free others from the fear of death, again as vicarious models. LaFleur's examples aren't the best, because he's appealing to a place and time sharing honor-shame values similar to (though in many ways different from, to be sure) medieval Japan. Of course, LaFleur was writing his critique of Shogun in 1980, well before the genesis of the Context Group.

Henry Smith critiques Clavell from another angle, in his essay, "The Paradoxes of the Japanese Samurai":
"Much is made in Shogun of the samurai as one who can face death with complete equanimity. This is indeed a central theme within the historical tradition of the samurai, although it should be emphasized out the outset that Clavell clearly departs from the historical ideal when he characterizes the samurai as a 'death-seeking warrior'. We see this in practice, for example, when Buntaro is ordered to cease his preparations for seppuku and thereby 'cast himself back into the abyss of life', or in the query of Yabu's death poem, 'What is life but an escape from death?' While such exaggeration may help dramatize Clavell's personal message about facing death, it has little basis in Japanese history... The Japanese are fundamentally a life-affirming people and the ideal of the samurai was to face death not with yearning, but with indifference. The more appropriate emphasis, and one which finds ample expression in Shogun, is that for a samurai honor was more important than life." (p 94)
And on the last point Smith concedes that Clavell gets it right: if the only way to avoid dishonor was through death, then so be it. Samurai faced and accepted death without hesitation -- for indeed honor was more important than life itself -- but that hardly means they looked forward to it.

I'm wondering, however, if Smith is misrepresenting Clavell, at least in part. His critique gives the impression that Shogun portrays samurai as looking for any excuse to die ("yearning" for death, "seeking" it out), but that's not the case. In the cases of Yabu and Buntaro, each goes out of his way to avoid death, try every possible means of self-preservation, and in general to achieve plenty in life. Only when all seems completely hopeless (Yabu stranded at the base of a cliff with the tide rushing in, Buntaro completely cornered by the enemy and about to be captured -- the most shameful fate for a samurai) do they prepare to kill themselves; only at this point do they "look forward" to death as an escape from "the abyss of life", which surely must be understood relatively as accepting one's karma and moving on to something better (like nirvana). I never understood Yabu and Buntaro's tranquil acceptance of death as a negation of the more frequent affirmation of life. These characters crave the end only when all avenues to self-preservation have been exhausted.

What I find most fascinating is that when Clavell was interviewed by scholars like Smith and Lafleur, he characterized the fear of death as a "stupid part of the Jewish-Christian ethic" (he was raised Protestant, like the hero of his novel, John Blackthorne). But the Maccabean martyrs and the gospel/Pauline portrayals of Jesus show that the noble death theme is rooted in the earliest parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. With regards to suicide, Shogun makes much of the harsh Christian view, and it's true that by Blackthorne's time suicides were consigned to hell by European Catholics and Protestants. But the bible itself is a Mediterranean product, and while it hardly lends support to a ritual like seppuku, it is nonetheless silent on the fate of those who take their own life. It would seem that the theme of death owes more to cultural values than religious ethics per se.

In the next post we'll address the theme of love.