Saturday, October 20, 2018

Reading for Halloween: "The Shining", hauntings at a classical work building

Now that we are preparing for Halloween, I remembered a bit all the dark novels and short stories I had read through the years: Poe, Lovecraft, also the immortal tale about the autumn people in "Something wicked this way comes" by Bradbury, "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Hawthorne, the enigmatic "Olalla" by Stevenson, even some of the scariest biblical passages. However, after reading the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank redemption" last April, I decided for the first time to try a long novel from Stephen King and chose "The Shining". The book was a second-hand copy given to me by a friend/coworker after his wedding last July.

Well, just two weeks ago after finishing the novel, I was telling my friend and some colleagues at work about my favorite scenes, so I reminisced about how five-year old hero, Daniel Torrance goes around the scary third-floor rooms of the old hotel. Little Danny knows all the hauntings in the hotel can disappear if he concentrates the power of his mind, so he runs and shouts across each room: "False face. I know who you are. You are all just masks and lies." But Danny still fears because the hotel is like a wasps' nest, full of bad spirits and ghosts, shouting and living in it, and one never knew where the next danger would come from. The haunted restaurant? The rooms? The fireplace with the mechanical clock? The elevator, hallways and stairs?

Then I laid back over my chair at lunch and told my colleagues "Know what? We needed a real Danny Torrance in this building." One of them replied "Why? Do you see many ghosts around here?" I just burst "Are you kidding me? Just think about our building - it is a four-floor solid institution from the mid 1920s, early classical 20th century architecture. And just think about all the powerful men that have governed this workplace! All those souls that did not want to relinquish power, still yearning for the status and influence they lost after leaving us. Of course, we have plenty of ghosts here. No wonder we are so often in a bad mood, always uptight and nervous about our tasks, writings and stuff. We suffer the bad influence of all those former governors, managers, board members, still making their aura felt around here!"

After laughing hard at this, people did confess that indeed one hears of ghosts inside the building, like the little girl who cries and the old man on his cane walking the dog. Just for you to have an idea and see what we were joking about, I leave you some pictures of our lovely 1920s work building. It is indeed a pleasure and a privilege to be here at such a solid institution in a great South American country. You can see pictures of the front entrance, the stairway, an office meeting rooms full of paintings from influential people that governed our institution, the hallways, our wonderful cafeteria with its large painted wall, and even a haunted clock from one of our emblematic rooms.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Unchained Dream

Last September 21st, the last morning of the South American winter, I woke up from a beautiful dream, my first dream starting with anguish and suffering and later ending on an uplifting mood.

It was very dark, but I saw on the ground some very heavy iron chains. Slowly I could hear the chains move in the dark and thought "poor man, what a suffering". Then I saw the chains move slowly up and down, and with a screech the shackles started to move up and down and from side to side. The moves and the sound of hurried footsteps became so fast, I was no longer certain if the prisoner was a man or perhaps a dog or a horse. I was thinking "poor animal, he won't be freed". Then with a heavy sound the chains fell to the floor and slowly, silently, the morning light started to shine and I saw the chains empty on the floor!

I then woke up, inspired and rejoicing, thinking "The dream freed me! That animal moved like a Harry Houdini!" This will be a year of hard labours and solitude for me, but now I feel very positive about a great outcome. Passion and effort will support me through the difficulties.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Lhasa, Tibet versus Santiago, Chile

On my 18th birthday I received Heinrich Harrer's autobiographical travel book "Seven years in Tibet". It was a gift from my first girlfriend, with whom I had seen the movie adaptation one month before at the Monumental theater in Lisbon. Obviously, the narrative was quite different from the cinematic adaptation, but it sparked a huge interest in Tibetan culture, geography and history. Fortunately, at the time a small Tibetan center with a range of books, Buddhist symbols and cuisine items had just opened in Lisbon.
Santiago: Lo Curro, Camino del Cóndor
Santiago: Korean Pagoda
Santiago: Mapocho river in Vitacura
Santiago: Cherry blossoms
20 years later I still have not visited Tibet, but I have lived far among foreign cultures. I have been nine years in the city of Santiago in Chile. Last weekend I was running along the city river Mapocho in the area of Vitacura. Spring has come and the defrosting enlivens the trees amid the rocks in the hills. The stream waters flow more smoothly and with a silver glow. Suddenly, the view of the bare hills in these early spring days reminded me of Harrer's and other travelers' pictures of the city of Lhasa. The hillside homes of wealthy residents in the Cóndor neighborhood look a tiny bit like the Potala palace complex. Also, one can see the blossoming cherry trees in Santiago now and a bit further south along the Mapocho stream we find a small Buddhist pagoda, a gift from the South Korean Republic to Chile.

Lhasa: Potala palace, 1903
Tibet: Karakash river
With a bit of fantasy and a few pictures of Santiago and Lhasa, the similarities easily come out!
Tibetan cherry tree
Lhasa: Potala palace

Monday, October 1, 2018

Florence and the Machine after the hurricane

Last September 17 I was with my spouse and our two year-old daughter buying the latest Florence and the Machine album "High as Hope" in a barnes&noble on the outskirts of Atlanta. I was planning this purchase on my US trip from Chile, since I really enjoy Florence Welch's music and her Ceremonials songs helped me overcome a bout of depression four years ago.

Later I had to leave my family and travel to DC for a work conference and the flight suffered some slight turbulence from the tail of hurricane Florence. Fortunately, DC only suffered from some mild wind and a heavy rain shower, not much else. Then it occurred to me that perhaps they should avoid giving names of people to natural disasters. Perhaps giving some scientific names or numbers would be more appropriate?

Upon returning to Chile I took a picture of my Florence and the Machine albums. My collection is missing the Lungs first album and the book "Useless Magic" which I just ordered. I also include my ticket for her concert in Lollapalooza Chile on the 20th March, 2016. It was a memorable date. My parents in-law arrived that same day for the first time in Chile and my baby daughter was born just two weeks afterwards!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Movie review: "Louder than bombs" versus "Rashomon"

Recently I saw a superb movie with French actress Isabelle Huppert, "Louder than bombs" (2015). It is about a deceased woman photojournalist who is remembered in very different ways by her widowed husband, her adult and recently married son, her shy teenage son, and her lover. It deals with memory, grief, identity, and with the different perspectives the same person can evoke in those around her, especially those who knew her well. Each one of us fights against one's own difficulties, believes in one's own hopes, and that clouds our remembrances of even the deepest relationships. The son may not understand a conflicted father who lived a problematic relationship with a disturbed person, the father may have not seen the depth of the love of his partner for the children. We do not know if each person's perspective is entirely true, only partially true or even a fantasized version of reality. Would a son actually prefer a make-belief story about a loving mother rather than face the truth about an uncaring one?

The movie immediately reminded me of "Rashomon" (1950) and how one can never know the truth about human relationships, perhaps we may not even know our true selves,  since we always embellish our thoughts about the role we have in the world and among others, afraid of the responsibilities we failed or the fact that we are all irrelevant or troublesome even to our relatives. Contradiction is an inevitable part of human being, because each one of us wants to draw a moral painting of our lives and how we lived.

I finish with some thoughts of Akira Kurosawa on the impact of the Rashomon script on his closest associates: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave — even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Esperanza en Español / Portugués / Inglés

Rosseti's "Pandora"
Al mirar una película hoy me dé cuenta de algo cuando alguien dijo "I hope". En inglés hope es un sustantivo y un verbo/una acción, pero en portugués y español uno diría "tener esperanza" o "estar con esperanza" o quizá "esperar", lo que es una acción pasiva. "Esperar" es más próximo del verbo "to await" que del verbo/acción "to hope". Para los Anglo-saxónicos la esperanza es una acción. Uno puede actuar en el sentido de las realizar. Los Latinos tienen esperanza y esperan que se concretiza o no. Debería la cultura latina ser más pro-activa con la esperanza?

"The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity... The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope." Samuel Johnson

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Pindar and Christina Perri sing of people as a Shadow of a Dream: Sports glory, defeat and loneliness

This week after Cristiano Ronaldo won his best player award I remembered two things: one, an ancient greek song about glory and defeat in Sports, and, second, a sad love song by an Italian-American singer, Christina Perri. What a coincidence that Cristiano and Christina share a male/female pair of the same Christian name!

Glory in sports always reminds me of one of the most celebrated ancient Greek poets, the singer Pindar. Almost all of his surviving poems are Victory Odes, songs made to celebrate the victors at Greek games such as the Olympics. In the ancient world, only the wealthy had time to practice sports, therefore the winners of the Olympics and other games were usually rich and they would receive more wealth and admiration upon their return as heroes to their towns. Pindar wrote his poems and songs to praise his employers, the victorious sportsmen, yet he did so with an elegance and beauty that remind us that life is a brief period full of struggles, that not everyone is a celebrated winner, and that the winners of excellence and glory achieve victory only after years of hard labor, grit and persistence.  That is why the sports winners are admired by the gods, their countrymen, and even the jealous defeated. Pindar’s most famous poem, the Pythian 8, dedicated to a famous wrestler, is believed to have been written in his old age and in just a few lines mentions all these motives of hardship and fame.

The Greek bard reminds his listeners that winning is more than mere boasting. Very few are the lucky ones who became wealthy without effort of their own, and for some heroes victory is bittersweet for they return home and may find that a loved one died and will not celebrate their victory. The poet also sings that one’s victory is the defeat of many others, and just like in wrestling the glory raises up some men and crushes others into the ground. For those who fail to win often the aftermath is miserable and their previous supporters, perhaps not even their mothers, give them any comfort or celebration party:

“He who boasts gets tripped, in the fullness of time, by his own violence. (…) At home, though, the hero Adrastus’ fortune will be the opposite. For he alone of the army of Danaoi will have to gather the bones of a son who died. (…) Justice stands beside the sweet-singing victory procession. I pray that the gods may regard your fortunes without envy. For if anyone has noble achievements without long toil, many think he is wise, that his life is well. But that is not ordained to be for men. It is a god who grants fortune; raising up one man and throwing down another. Enter the struggle with due measure. (…) Returning to their mothers, sweet laughter does not rouse delight in them: hidden in alleys, they avoid their enemies, bitten by misfortune.”

Meanwhile the glorious victor celebrates his success, the respect and admiration of everyone is even more important than the material wealth gained.  Yet if the winner is wise, his happiness is disturbed by the knowledge that victory is a fleeting moment in the here and now, and often victory will quickly be followed by a defeat, when everyone will forget his past achievements.

“But whoever has as his lot something beautiful in the here and now, in a time of great splendor, such a man soars driven by his aspirations, lifted high in the air by his feats of manliness, thinking of that which is greater than wealth. In a short time the delight of mortals grows, but just as quickly it falls to the ground, shaken by adverse opinion. Creatures of a day are we. What is someone? What is a no one? Man is the dream of a shadow. But whenever the radiance of Zeus comes, a bright light and gentle life pleases him.”

This is probably Pindar’s last work, he would have been an old man by now, and he sees that both successes and misfortunes are transient and ephemeral. Joy is insubstantial, the dream of a shadow. Men is the creature of a day, nothing more than fleeting dream. Only the worship of religion and the gods, “the radiance of Zeus” gives lasting wisdom and guides our lives. Perhaps this is a lesson for athletes and also sports’ fans today – we must find higher meaning in our lives, rather than just watching silly games. Both famous people and the unknown ones will all be forgotten one day. In fact, Pindar’s most famous line “Man is the dream of a shadow” echoes the thoughts of other Greek tragedians such as Aeschyllus (“The race of mortals thinks only for today and is no more to be relied on than the shadow of smoke.”), Sophocles (in his play Philoctetes, the hero Neoptolemus does not realize he fought against a mere phantom, the shadow of smoke) and even of the Bible, in particular the book of wisdom, the Ecclesiastes (“Who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which passes by like a shadow?”). St. James said our life is but a vapor.

That is Pindar’s song: one day we are a great success, another day we are a humiliated loser. How many athletes and coaches today can say they shared this feeling before? Everyone. Cristiano Ronaldo must have felt this feeling and he even shared a tragedy mentioned by Pindar for once he won a game with Portugal’s team, only to find out that his father had passed away.

All of us, normal people, non-athletes, surely shared the same feeling many times. How many times did we look in the eyes of our spouses, partners or even our parents, just to find a feeling of deception and disappointment? Christina Perri sings exactly of this in her chilly song “The Lonely”. Perri wrote the song about her relationship with no one, "nobody or with this ghost of somebody": “Crying off my face again. The silent sound of loneliness wants to follow me to bed. I'm the ghost of a girl that I want to be most. I'm the shell of a girl that I used to know well.”

The major losers today are the unloved ones. Our society is particularly obsessed with those who are less beautiful, unloved and lonelier, and that is why we invented the internet, Facebook and many of the social media, so we feel more in-contact and less alone by ourselves. Probably in the ancient world, such as Pindar’s time, this kind of loneliness was not as common, because people stayed in their hometown and close to their families all their lives. Only a few brave ones would move alone to other cities to study for college and find jobs. Today even people as young as freshmen college students will have felt feelings of loneliness, abandonment, lack of love and rejection, all of this at an age as young as 18!

I end with the links to two translations of Pindar’s poem and Christina’s beautiful song: