Saturday, May 15, 2021

Daily reminiscences of novels: oranges in 1930s Depression, onions during World War II, artificial flowers in a sci-fi future

I always enjoy small daily actions that remind me of some favourite scenes in great novels. The hero Rick Deckard in Phil K Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in his apocaliptic future sees artificial life imitations all around him, from the electric sheep in his home to the frog he offers his wife at the end. It is a bit too bleak to own robot animals, but I am often pleased to have artificial flowers both at home (in picture) and in the office. Originally, the novel was supposed to be  in 1992 or 2021, but despite the pandemic we still have animals all around us. But I believe that actually my artificial flower vases are quite ecological and mood soothing, since they spend no water, unlike the robot animals of Deckard.

There is also the onions that I always eat plentiful in every salad buffet, which remind me of the scene when Bendrix first meets Sarah in The End of the Affair during the years just before World War II, "Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? It seems improbable and yet I could swear it was just then that I fell in love."

But my favorite literary reference to a daily item or activity is in John Fante's book, where the young author Arturo Bandini living in poverty in his rented LA room has been eating oranges as meals for month, a sweet liquid sunlight that fills up his stomach, the cheapest food he can find. Orange peels pile up with cigarette ashes in his room. Other creative solutions for his poverty is to use the strings from the cereal boxes as a belt and shoe laces, then applying the carton box paper to fix up his shoe sole. Arturo reflects upon looking at the nice ladies arriving to the luxury hotels in LA that their shoes are worth more than everything he ever owned... But Arturo - despiste his rough philosophy - is in fact a soft-hearted boy and ends up using his first check as an author to pay a beef meal to a senior neighbor. Arturo also adds extra sugar to his coffee in order to get a bit more taste and calories. The same choice of taking several bags of sugar in a coffee cup is admitted by a character in John Steinbeck's novel "The winter of our discontent".

I just really love the Arturo Bandini character, because of his so many flaws and realism, his cowardice, made up lies even to himself, lack of success and inability to talk elegantly to people. Yet Arturo's deep honesty and resilience makes him rise up above the poverty around him. 

I have a great taste for sweet oranges and enjoy eating 2 per day in winter while looking at the city of Santiago in the mid-afternoon with its smog-filled horizon. In some ways it is a bit like the smoggy LA. That is why eating oranges - fortunately, for me a food choice - always makes me think of Bandini and his so many flaws, yet always painted with the colored sincerity of a good heart.

Monday, December 7, 2020

A half marathon through the Graffiti of Santiago

 Last February 9th of 2020, I read some news that some of the best mural art in Santiago was being destroyed during the political protests after October 2019. In particular, the wall painting of Gustavo Cerati had been partially defaced by other writings. Therefore I did a 22 Km race between Providencia, the center of Santiago, and back to catch some of the best mural art of Santiago:

Monday, June 29, 2020

Inequality of life during the pandemic today: a Dostoyevskian society!

This Easter there was media coverage in Chile about the quarantine of the Covid pandemic not being the same for everyone, with millionaires leaving high scale neighborhood Vitacura by helicopter for their summer mansions on the coast. A bit of what is also happening in other countries like the US, China, UK, France...
That Easter Friday’s afternoon, I was reading Dostoyevsky’s "White Nights". This short novel (about 60 pages) right on page 3 has a scene that looks like today’s image of inequality. The narrator is a middle-class young man in Saint Petersburg that enjoys strolling around the wealthy and beautiful mansions. An early spring weekend he realizes that all the wealthy left town for their country houses or the nearby islands. Then he describes quite well the exodus of the privileged: the men carry flowers next to their wives in an elegant carriage, while behind go servants with wagons full of things or even a second carriage with all the furniture and kitchen items. But the richest of all send their things by boat over the Neva river!

Therefore we live in a Dostoyevskian society! No Czars in power, but quite a few oligarchs enjoying their country mansions!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Roaring 20's and Great Depression novels: The Great Gatsby and its awkward opposite!

The characters in the Great Gatsby and Arturo Bandini novels are true opposites in wealth and sophistication. However, they share one trait: persisting in their romantic dreams until the end!

The Great Depression left a profound image on the memories of people. Until today, perhaps the strongest impression on people's minds is the contrast between great wealth and abject poverty from the mass unemployed living in big cities or wandering the countryside in search of work. It also captures the human spirit with irony by contrasting the golden years, peace and prosperity of the previous decade with the despair, misery and loneliness of the 1930s.

Los Angeles hill, a setting similar to Ask the Dust
One of the great literary pieces out of the Roaring Twenties is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as popular (or more) today as in its first 1925 edition. It touches so many enduring emotions. For the American soldiers in WW2 it probably reminded them that their girlfriends may not be waiting at the end of the war. For the younger generations that did not live a military conflict, it reflects that romantic ambitions are not always fulfilled even if someones gives it all its effort. The novel's unrequited love story also tells us about class and family origins. Talent, effort and merit do not always get recognized. The main character Jay Gatsby is ashamed of his family to the point of abandoning his loving father and changing his name. Finally, the story teaches us that great wealth and luxury only feed snobbism and vanity. Noisy parties do not buy us friends. The pursuit of happiness is as elusive now as it was for the great Greek-Roman philosophers like Aristotle or the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The novel already has four amazing movie adaptations, of which I only saw the Robert Redford's and Di Caprio's versions. These movies, obviously are not exactly similar to the book, but are faithful enough to preserve all of its main motives and even lots of the same phrases and dialogues.

To me the greatest contrast comes from comparing the Great Gatsby in relation to the novels of the Great Depression such as John Steinbeck's. One such novel is Ask the Dust by John Fante, a story of sticking to one's own values and dreams in the face of adversity. It is purported to be a fictional version of some autobiographical events in the author's own life and rightfully so. Historians often say that any human persons enjoys to make up sublime versions of himself (or herself), heroic interpretations of ourselves. However, admitting to our own faults and humilliations is much more difficult! And yet the faults and humilliations are much truer to life. Fante's novel is full of humilliations inflicted upon its main character, Arturo Bandini.

If Jay Gatsby is elegant, sophisticated, wealthy, charming and a successful man, then Bandini is its very opposite. Arturo Bandini is a young and jobless writer in Los Angeles. The little money that he receives from his Mom is spent on oranges, the cheapest food he can afford, which he eats under a sorching heat while thinking that its sweet huices resembles liquid sunlight filling his empty belly. Gatsby has fame and money, but Bandini only gets a small check and his literary reputation only impresses a 14 year old neighbor and a divorced woman full of uneasy emotions. If Gatsby has the most expensive clothes, then Bandini uses the rope from cereal boxes as a belt and applies the box carton to repair his old shoes. Gatbsy throws money in luxurious parties, yet Bandini uses the little money he has to pay a steak to his neighbor. If Gatsby is the most admired person, then Bandini is utterly ignored and poor, something that he cruelly observes when he looks at the rich ladies arriving in limousines to LA's expensive hotels and then remarks that those beautiful women wear shoes that are more expensive than all the things he ever owned.

Even their personalities contrast, Gatsby being brave and noble, while Bandini is often rude and cowardly. Bandini flees from a prostitute after paying her because he feels the abject act would degrade his Christian faith. Bandini flees during the 1933 earthquake and afterwards feels so ashamed that he invents tales of brave acts and having rushed to save others, tall tales that lack such realism that none of his neighbors believe and just reveal his lack of courage more glaringly.

Yet Bandini's flaws always shine with the sincerity and simplicity of those who are poor, young, but with big dreams and loving intentions. Bandini is awkward and unable to play the seductor to his love interest, Camilla Lopez. Camilla is a waitress and a down to earth character, not at all like the attractive and dreamy socialite Daisy that is pursued by Gatsby. But Bandini shows great character and nobleness even in the most despairing situations. In fact, perhaps Bandini's lowest point is reached when Camilla reveals that she loves Sam, a waiter suffering badly from tuberculosis and a failed writer of western novels. Sam is rude, violent, and even poorer than Bandini is, yet he manages to capture Camilla's passion. Camilla tramples on Bandini's love with her feet, but Bandini is noble enough to ignore his own feelings and to be concerned for her situation. Bandini gives confort to the dying Sam, then searches the desert for Camilla and just leaves his new novel in the sand when the scorching heat forces him to give up hope.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Influencias masónicas en las letras del "Fuerza Natural" de Gustavo Cerati

Hace poco empecé a escuchar al fallecido cantante argentino Gustavo Cerati, una vez que viví mis primeras 3 décadas de vida en Europa y EEUU. Pero en los últimos 2 meses de cuarentena en Chile estuve escuchando su último álbum, "Fuerza Natural", cuando hago ejercicio en mi terraza todas las mañanas. El ultimo domingo de Pascua por fin me de cuenta que muchas de sus letras sonaban a frases de filosofía francesa u de órdenes/logias masónicas.

Ya había observado antes que en el libreto del CD existían 2 páginas al medio llenas de símbolos y geometría masónicas, como el árbol de la vida, triángulos y triángulos invertidos dentro de círculos, 13 esferas/planetas (el álbum tiene 13 canciones). Pero antes pensaba que eres solo decoración, porque hay muchos de esos símbolos en t-shirts o en cartas/libros de tarot pero sin referencia al significado místico. En el caso de Cerati había realmente una intención de simbología masónica, porque ciertas frases están en todas sus canciones, como Deja Vu, Magia ("geometría de una flor", "universo en mi favor") o Amor sin Rodeos ("desafiamos la ley", "de trampas se hizo la ley" - algunos “iluminados” masónicos seguían como máximas "el deseo es la única ley", "haz tu voluntad, será toda la ley", "amor es la ley, amor bajo voluntad"). El ejemplo más obvio es que la última canción, que está oculta al fin de la canción 13, se llama con el signo de numeral # y esa canción son dos secuencias del 1 al 13, la primera secuencia son números asociados a eventos de evolución personal ("está solo y se entera", "mi cumpleaños", "las lunas en tu año") y la segunda son referencias al universo. Así que el cantante sería un admirador de cierta filosofía masónica o posiblemente quería que el álbum fuese una celebración de algún ritual iniciático o un paso hacía la iluminación.

Y bien la referencia de que el Gustavo Cerati se refería a francmasonería francesa o a la filosofía francesa de libertad en general está en la portada del álbum con una foto de París. Sería más fácil de entender un artista argentino poner en su portada una fotografía del grupo musical o una foto de un concierto, pero seleccionó una fotografía del barrio parisiense La Défense, con un plan urbano que da la sensación arquitectónica de un viaje en el espacio y tiempo, una ventana abierta al mundo y al otro. En la foto portada Cerati debe haber pedido para borrar digitalmente los letreros con nombres corporativos de los edificios y también borró la Torre Eiffel. En la foto digitalizada el Cerati vestido de jinete enmascarado viene de los Campos Elíseos (debería tener la Torre Eiffel detrás de él) y va en la dirección al Arch de la Défense, el símbolo de la fraternidad.

Algunas de estas especulaciones las vi confirmadas en blogs de otros fanáticos, tales como:

la explicación de la portada del álbum en FlacoStereo

las declaraciones de Gustavo Cerati en la prensa en relación a hacer un disco completo y no algo romántico o un mensaje ecológico, una obra que hable del metrónomo de Dios, las fuerzas naturales internas y externas, invisibles y cotidianas

y finalmente hay un largo análisis en el blog de Gustav Dracko, Códice Cerati, con varios textos:
Radiografía de un genio (2016 y 2015)
Teoría Códice Cerati
Foto de contracapa
Análisis de cada canción en Fuerza Natural, de los números en Numeral, y del barrio Palermo en Buenos Aires.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Cuentos de desigualdad: Chile hoy y la Rusia de Dostoyevski

Esta Pascua hubo una cobertura mediática en Chile al respecto de que la cuarentena de la pandemia Covid no eres igual para todos, tal como todo en la vida, con millonarios saliendo de Vitacura en helicóptero hacía sus mansiones de veraneo en la costa.

Bueno, en la tarde de ese viernes de Pascua estaba a leer Dostoyevski “Noches blancas”. La novela (corta, solo unas 60 páginas) justo en la página 3 tiene una escena que se parece a la imagen de desigualdad de los helicópteros de Chile hoy. El narrador es un joven de clase media en San Petersburgo y le gusta pasear a ver las mansiones de los ricos. Un día al inicio de la primavera se da cuenta que en el fin de semana todos los ricos se fueron de la ciudad para sus casas de campo o en las islas cercanas. Ahí describe muy bien el espectacular éxodo de los acaudalados: los hombres van con flores junto a sus esposas en un coche elegante, pero detrás de ellos van sirvientes con carromatos llenos de cosas o a veces un coche mayor donde la cocinera o sirvienta mayor de la casa va sola con los muebles, utensilios domésticos, sofás y hasta las ollas de cocina. Pero los más ricos, ricos de todos, envían sus muebles y cosas por barco en el río Neva!!!!

Así que vivimos en una sociedad Dostoyevskiana! Sin Czares en el poder, pero con oligarcas en mansiones de campo!!!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Political economy and old calamities: the will to ignore the cost of life in wars, famines and epidemies

Now that we are facing the global Covid pandemic, perhaps the most mortal event involving multiple nations since the World War II, I remembered some books that I had read on the political economy and its relationship to ignore the distribution costs of mankind's biggest calamities.

One such book is Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom" (1999). Amartya Sen develops his framework that human rights are important both as an end result (developed nations have higher levels of human development), but also as part of the process (human societies gain welfare from deciding their projects collectively in peace, reason and in democracy, giving every individual and group the right to participate). Sen also summarizes his research on famines as a tragedy of political will. His analysis finds that in modern times no democratic country (no matter how poor) ever suffered a large loss of human life as a result of an agricultural disaster or a famine, because democratic countries always find a way to import some food resources from abroad and redistribute such resources in a way to prevent a large fatality from famine. However, dictatorships and countries riddled by ethnic conflicts often show a lack of compassion towards the poor and the groups affected by famine, therefore allowing the disaster to take its full toll due to a lack of political will. I remember well reading this book when I was 19. Freedom and human rights must be seen as a process of expanding the opportunities and possibilities of individual and collective lives.

Of course, the most clear example of politicians' will to let a large loss of human life happen is their willingness to go to start large military conflicts. This was more common in agricultural societies fighting for limited soil. The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage represented a conflict with such a large number of military and civillian casualties that it probably surpassed the impact of World War I and II in terms of the population of the time. The leaders of those ancient societies were quite willing to risk everything and fight until the end to win the conflict.

An example of such a disaster was World War II. Just a few years ago, I read Richard Evans' "The Third Reich at War" (2008). The book has a large amount of detail about the military operations in World War II and their cost for the economy. I was surprised to see in the book a lot of evidence that German strategists always knew that the outcome of the war would probably be an astounding defeat for Germany. Germany's war was pushing a great deal more of sacrifice on its population that the suffering in the UK and USA. Several military commanders warned Hitler that the industrial might of the UK and its Empire was much larger than Germany's and they would lose the war over time once the UK and its Allies would transform their manufacturing from peacetime civillian needs to war purposes. Germany had a head start because they specialized in the war economy a few years earlier, but that head start would be lost after 3 years and then the UK - even without the USA as an ally - would slowly win the conflict out of sheer manufacturing power. The same could be said of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union started the war with worse technology and organization leadership, in great part due to the incompetence of Stalin, but it could override Germany in a prolongued war, due to its greater resources and industrial capacity, especially once Hitler's forces were unable to reach and control the Caucasus' oil reserves.

I was even more surprised that this evidence was so obvious that it was behind the lack of international support for Germany from some of its "ideological" allies, such as fascist Spain. Phone tapes' evidence reveals that fascist dictator Franco resolutely communicated to Hitler that he was unwilling to declare war on the UK. His reasoning was that the UK was far from being defeated and would eventually win the war, even after the German successes in France and the Soviet Union, due to the UK's larger industrial capacity. Franco was even farsighted enough to tell Hitler and his strategists that they would lose the conflict, even if they managed to invade the British Isles, since the UK would simply persist on the war using Canada as a base. These were conversations between Spain and Germany before the USA joined the war and revealed that even for a fascist ally the war was seen as a losing project.

Fortunately, the current democracies and even some authoritarian regimes are reacting more positively towards the loss of life implied by the Covid pandemic. Several commentators have observed that countries with a female leader as president or chancellor/prime minister, such as Finland, New Zealand, Taiwan or Germany, reacted earlier and with more respect towards the loss of life from the pandemic. Again, as observed in Amartya Sen but also in other thinkers such as Harvard's psychologist Steven Pinker, this leads us to the great value induced by mutigroup, multiethnic plus female participation in society and leadership, since female and multigroup participation in decisions leads to more conservative positions and life preserving outcomes.

It is still a sanitary war going on... And perhaps, due to the rise of China as a second world power, there is also the menace of the "Thucydides' Trap" in which a change in the roles of the first and second world powers can lead to conflict. I am confident, however, that the 21st century's multinational institutions can avoid this disastrous outcome.