Friday, 27 January 2012

New Year Melodies

Two poems, the first my translation of "Bian River Blocked By Ice" by Dù Mù (803-852), the second an attempt to write something similar myself.

River Blocked by Ice

All along the river's length, it begins to freeze.
Tinkling sounds of jade on jade sputter in the breeze.
Such is this sporadic life, day and night it goes,
Like the waters under ice, east yet no-one knows.

— Dù Mù (trans. —okei) 

Path Full of Leaves

Autumn crackles under foot, slow the path descends,
Amber in the morning light, fuel for new ends.
When the vultures circle high, when my force is spent,
May I know how spring must feel, this life heaven-sent.


Monday, 23 January 2012

Aryadeva on Pleasure

This is very loosely based on verses by Aryadeva on the subject of abandoning belief in hedonism. There is an arc to the argument as the imagined author of the haikus gradually changes perspective.

The image is "Diana's Maidens" by Edward Robert Hughes.

Though impermanent,
Sustained discipline and care
Keep the body well.

The body’s pleasure
Is transient like a hot wind
Across a river.

Pleasure’s time is short.
Like a burst of summer rain,
Soon no trace remains.

Hunger, cold and pain
Afflict the poor, whilst the high
Suffer from their minds.

Joy cannot withstand
This body subject to pain,
This mind to suffering.

Not really my foe,
The body aches by nature.
Joy comes from elsewhere.

A hull of suffering
Beset by woe, am I still
Devoted to flesh?

Joy’s balm cannot cure
Yet I keep chasing after,
So the wheel goes round.

Joy is ruled by thoughts,
Thoughts are ruled by fear and pain
And nothing rules pain.

Pain’s a cruel master,
Its power ever increasing
With age and sickness.

Causes of pleasure
Are few, and when amplified
Their symptoms painful.

Causes of suffering
Too many, they overwhelm
Joy’s little respite.

Pleasure like a dream
Treads delicate on life’s sands
Footsteps of longing.

When the tide rolls in,
Pathless, which way should I go?
Night’s footsteps effaced.

Life’s little comforts
Mean but death, languishing in
Epicurean sighs.

How can I find ease
When this abode of earth is
Slowly burning up.

In rising waters,
Trapped, alone and breathing death,
Who could find joy then?

The five elements
Find harmonious rhapsody
Through fitful struggle.

I take no pleasure
In my own or others’ pain.
Ill deeds make ill births.

Who would feel delight
Retching in a pot of gold
Rather than of clay?

It seems pleasurable
To ride instead of walking
Since the effort’s less.

To act gives me joy,
Yet acts requires exertion,
Even lying down.

Relief from trouble
Seems to bring joy, yet joy’s source
Never existed.

If joy were so good
At disguising my suffering,
Why not completely?

Seeing my attachment
To things which last not ever,
I’m done with pleasure.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Ghost in the Shell (Kôkaku Kidôtai; Japan, 1995)

Genre: Animation

Six years before the Matrix, there was the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell which inspired it. Set in Hong Kong in the year 2029, old parts of the city are flooded, the sky is a dirty orange, humans have invented cynoptic camouflage, weapons and armoured protection are more powerful than ever, and most importantly, everything is digitized. Technology has entered into the human body, to the extent that whilst most humans are still only slightly modified, the elite units are mostly cyborg with the exception of brain matter, enabling them with capabilities of enhanced metabolism, sensory perception, speed, memory, processing capacity, communication and of course toughness. The cost of such progress is the need for occasional maintenance, as well as a gnawing unease at the insignificance of the self beneath all these government-loaned enhancements. There is also the fear that the organic brain might wither away or else be hacked into and controlled, and how would one ever know?

Among these elite forces is Major Kusanagi, a female crime-fighter of the highest calibre. Along with her cyborg-friend Bateau, who is equipped with enhanced vision, and her crime-fighting partner ex-police officer Togusa, she is on the hunt for the infamous Puppet Master, about whom almost nothing is known except for the numerous high-level crimes he has perpetrated through mind-control. All memory is just data, so how could a potential victim of mind-control distinguish reality from fantasy? When one starts to question what you put your trust in, who certifies someone as trustworthy, and who certifies them, The line of questioning never ends. We are only human, which makes all the more disquieting the news of the Puppet Master’s hacking of human brains, their contents having been wiped and replaced with his criminal commands. And who’s to say that the Puppet Master is not himself a puppet?

As well as having an excellent plot, and brilliant animation, with the exception of walking (cyborgs don’t seem to be able to walk properly), the most memorable aspect of the movie is the great central character of the Major herself. All other characters mirror her in a glass darkly, her strong will, toughness and cool reserve. The atmosphere of the film is haunting, a little film-noir in its tone, the palette very grey and sombre, the music ghostly and futuristic.

Another great strength of the movie, already touched on, is the realism of the philosophical issues raised. What does it mean to be human in this world of ever-advancing technology. What happens when a robot claims personhood? How can we prove that while we are life-forms, a robot isn’t? Scientifically, we cannot do it, but one way we are unlike robots is that instead of making copies of ourselves, we die and reproduce. We merge our differences with another, thus protecting ourselves against a single virus that could wipe us all out. When the mostly-human Togusa asks the Major why she chose him to be her crime-fighting partner, it is the difference she saw in him that she gives as the reason for her choice. But when the Major asks the same question of another at the end of the movie, she gets a different answer, one of similarity. Though the story is told from the point of view of Section 9, the nefarious rivals in Section 6 are not so different except in the methods they use.

This review would not be complete without mention of the arguably gratuitous displays of nudity and violence, especially in the opening sequences. Designed no doubt to get the attention of adolescent audiences as “adult" manga, it acts as a superficial cover for the film’s deeper ideas. Cyborgs are not self-conscious of their nudity because they do not identify with it. A cyborg’s body is just a matter of taste, not biology, and for robot shells this extends to a certain ambiguity of gender.

We identify ourselves with our memories. But the real self is not even that. It is the ghost in the shell of a titanium skull. It is the whisper of female intuition. It is the seat of emotions that makes the Major love to go diving despite the dangers. The fear, anxiety, loneliness, darkness… even Hope, that she experiences in the depths, are what makes her feel human. When the red lasers of death caress her in the closing sequences, merging in her forehead, they represent the forces of love also, which in the form of Bateau’s replaceable arm and subsequent care, ultimately save her in a kind of enlightened union with all, as she becomes one with the ether yet in physical form. In words reminiscent of the character Jane, in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” (and subsequent novels), the movie concludes with Major Kusanagi transformed and full of promise, “the net is vast and limitless”. 

The film is begging for a sequel. In 2004, after three years of gruelling work, director Mamoru Oshii released “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence”. This is a tremendously impressive display of anime artistry with more vibrant colour than the original, and not short of philosophical bite either, the focus shifting to robots being used as household dolls and the ethical implications. However, without Major Kusanagi as the central driving character, it couldn’t live up to the simple charm of the original.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Love Story

This story arises out of contemplations on love, and how we love different things. I would be grateful if we could go deeper and share thoughts on this subject, and hopefully this story can help provide inspiration to think about. :^)

The image is The Princess out of School by Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), and following the story is a short poem O Gather Me the Rose by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903).

A Love Story

Once upon a time there was a mayor who loved his city very much, and he ordered that in the centre of his city a beautiful garden to be built.

The gardener to whom this task was assigned did exactly as he was bid, and the garden was filled with the most exquisite flowers and soon butterflies and birds took up their abode in its surrounding hedges and trees to make the place just perfect. The mayor was very pleased, but for just one thing. He was slightly sad that the garden was so carefully contained, with only a little gate at either end. And he would have rather if the garden sprawled beyond its bounds and gathered the city into it, instead of hiding secretly within it.

But the gardener did not mean to hide his work, and spread the word and put up a plaque upon each gate, inviting all to come and walk and stay a little while among the flowers, a peaceful moment of secluded solitude away from the bustle of the city. But not invited were bicycles or skaters, or children playing football, for there were other places in the city where these could be done. The mayor was very pleased but still he knew within his heart that the gardener loved the garden more than the city. Was he right?

A fair lady came walking in the garden with her little white dog, and the most beautiful flower she saw. She desired to capture it, its sight, its fragrance. She went home that evening and began to draw. She had always been good at drawing, ever since she was a little child, but the image of her brush strokes paled beside the image in her head. When she came back the following day, the flower was more beautiful than ever, and though she was sorry to deprive the garden of its beauty, she could not help but pluck it and take it back home to display for all her family and friends. The gardener had noticed the flower too. He liked the lady very much and was pleased it gave her so much joy, but still he knew within his heart that the fair lady loved the rose more than the garden, or she would have left it. Was he right?

In time the flower's beauty faded, but not before it had caught the eye of a little boy who had come to visit the lady's daughter whom he fancied very much. He marvelled at its shape and structure, and when the lady saw him so enthralled, she gave it to him to make up for his melancholy air because the daughter was not there. He took it up to his room and began examining it more closely. Holding it firmly by the stem, he removed the petals, letting them fall. Five filaments remained and a central stalk. Then his mother called and he quickly hid its remnants under the leaves of a potted plant and went down to meet her. But in his playful investigation, he had brushed a little pollen from one of the filaments quite by accident onto the sticky central lobe, and over time this grew downwards and began to seed the ovary. In his room, another flower was born. When he discovered it, and seeing how it had come about, he came to know how flowers could be pollinated by hand, and this knowledge excited him very greatly. He gave the flower at once as a present to his sweetheart, still in the soil in which he had found it, and told the whole story. And the young daughter knew in her heart that he loved the knowledge that the flower had given him more than he loved the flower itself. Was she right?

But the daughter knew also in her heart that most of all the little boy loved her. And she was very pleased at that thought, because she loved him too. But to put that love into words, or art, or music, was impossible, for that was to restrict it. The love she felt for words or art or music, or anything else, could not replace that love she felt for him. So, leaning in towards him, she gave him a kiss.

 O Gather Me the Rose
William Ernest Henley

O GATHER me the rose, the rose,
While yet in flower we find it,
For summer smiles, but summer goes,
And winter waits behind it.

For with the dream foregone, foregone,
The deed foreborn forever,
The worm Regret will canker on,
And time will turn him never.

So were it well to love, my love,
And cheat of any laughter
The fate beneath us, and above,
The dark before and after.

The myrtle and the rose, the rose,
The sunshine and the swallow,
The dream that comes, the wish that goes
The memories that follow!