Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jennifer Lawrence's Vietnamese in the new "X-men" film

is bad.
I didn't watch the film, and won't. Someone was kind enough to upload the video clip here:

A few foreigners here and there on the net praise her Vietnamese, saying it's "legit", "uncanny", spoken "well", "must be dubbed", etc. 
With Vietnamese as my 1st language, I couldn't make out what she said except 1 sentence ("Không, tôi đến đây 1 mình"), no matter how many times I watched the clip. Neither can I say if she learnt some specific lines and tried to speak them, or memorised and reproduced a bunch of sounds that might have sounded Vietnamese to the American ear (more like Thai to me). The Vietnamese audience have the same reaction. 
Note: I'm commenting, not criticising (if I have problems with anything, it's not with Jennifer Lawrence, but with the people who say she spoke well a language about which they know nothing). 
Finally: có ai biết nguyên văn các câu Jennifer Lawrence nói trong film "X-men" là gì không ạ?

Friday, 30 May 2014

3 pieces by Tolstoy

Just read "Family happiness", "A history of yesterday" and "Memoirs of a madman" by Tolstoy. 
I won't write reviews*. 
I'm merely thinking that I love Tolstoy and prefer him to Dostoyevsky because his characters are people and exist for themselves, with their strengths and weaknesses, emotions, longings..., unlike Dostoyevsky's characters, who, though complex and self-contradicting enough not to be called caricatures, seem to owe their existence to the ideas they embody. Tolstoy's works deal with life, as itself, with its nuances, not some abstract problems or philosophical debates; they depict a wide range of experiences and have all manifestations of life. I never cease to marvel at his ability to slip into his characters' minds. If detractors criticise Dostoyevsky for pushing everything to the extreme and creating exceptional rather than ordinary characters and admirers defend him, saying that fiction doesn't have to be strictly like life and such extremes are more revealing about human nature, I think one cannot deny the fact that his female characters are not right- they feel wrong, unnatural, contrived, unconvincing and less tolerable than the male ones, at least, Tolstoy's far better at creating female characters. Reading "Family happiness", which is written from the point of view of a frivolous young woman, I'm amazed- Tolstoy's psychological insight is awe-inspiring.
However, it should be noted that I do love Dostoyevsky in spite of his mawkishness and unnatural female characters, almost the same way I love Tolstoy in spite of his didacticism and naive idealism. There's no need to disparage 1 literary giant to praise another. Both are geniuses. 

*: Not sure why lately I've written some, but generally I don't like writing reviews, which usually have a summary, then some comments in the form of "I like it" or "I don't like it but it has merit" or "This is bad". That's boring. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

1st kirigami works

Made these at the end of April- beginning of May, haven't had time to make other ones, nor to transfer the pictures from my camera to my computer till now. 
(Sooo ugly. Please forgive a beginner). 

Why I object to the non-literal "literally"

Or put it this way, I don't like it and don't use it. When I say/ write "literally", I mean "literally". 
This post is more or less a response to 

1st of all, it should be noted that I'm not a prescriptivist, at least I don't consider myself one, and in many cases (in English as well as in Vietnamese) I'm rather against prescriptivism.
However, I don't like the non-literal "literally". 
1 reason is that it's overused (this guy has the same view: The word "literally" used as an intensifier has become so common that it's now platitudinous, trite, boring.
Another reason is that once in a while I'm not sure if a statement is meant to be literal or figurative. 
And most importantly, if the non-literal use of "literally" is so widespread, which word should one use when one means "literally"? To know with certainty whether or not something is a hyperbole isn't simple as it sounds- there can be statements that sound very much like exaggerations but which are totally true. 
- "He laughed so hard he died. Literally." 
Doesn't happen often, but a fit of laughter can now and then cause a cardiac arrest or asphyxiation and then death, so one may die from laughter. 
- "She literally looked at her own reflection every 3 minutes." 
"3 minutes" sounds like an exaggeration of "very, very often", but this is true. It happened once, when I was on a métro and there was a girl sitting opposite me, who every 3-4 minutes took out her phone to see her face and fix her hair, continually for about half an hour all the way since I sat down on that seat till I got off in front of my university. I have no idea why she did that, but this is not a hyperbole. 
- "She literally peed her pants!" 
Hasn't happened to me, no, but I've heard Jennifer Lawrence did that once when she was startled.
I should think of more examples, better ones, but you get the general idea. Now, with such statements, I must say "non-figuratively" or "no hyperbole" or "not an exaggeration" or "no, I mean literally, literally literally" or "it sounds like a hyperbole but it isn't"? It's as irritating as the fact that one can no longer say "I like twilight" without specifying that one means "the soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the reflection of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere" or "the period of the evening when twilight is visible, between daylight and darkness" (OED), not the book series by Stephenie Meyer (I know, bad analogy, but, you know...). 

Monday, 26 May 2014

"God Sees the Truth, But Waits"

inspired "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption". 
I didn't know that. 
(Haven't read this book but I've watched its film "The Shawshank Redemption"). 
Perhaps I would appreciate Tolstoy's story (or should I say parable?) more if I were more religious, but I'm not, so, even if you may frown at me for in this case preferring Stephen King to Tolstoy, I can't help saying that in "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" Tolstoy seems to advocate passivity and resignation, which also means throwing one's life away and giving up hope and stopping fighting for the truth and justice. Aksenov accepts his fate, good for him; forgives, good for him; dies in peace, good for him. But his attitude isn't much different from defeatism and the parable can only be helpful to people who believe in God, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul; to others, the point about forgiveness can be thought-provoking, but the overall story is rather pointless. Aksenov, arrested for a crime he doesn't commit, gets sent to Siberia for 26 years, passively accepting it instead of fighting, and then dies. 
Also, the country from which I come does shape my thought, my sense of justice and freedom. Freedom is not free. We do not know what will happen after death, why throw our lives away if we only live once? The story reminds me of another film, "In the Name of the Father", based on a true story. It's less about the corruption of the police officers and their tampering with evidence than about the triumph of justice at last- late, indeed, Gerry Conlon and his friends spent more than 15 years in prison, but still, they were released and proved innocent. And Tolstoy's story? Maybe I'm thinking more of my own time, when technology is better, when we have CSI and the police and lawyers and everything, but one may argue that Tolstoy's story no longer has much value if it's only relevant for its time. 
Go back to "The Shawshank Redemption", justice doesn't come from another trial, doesn't come from a nice lawyer (like Gareth Peirce). Andy escapes. The moral is different. Like Aksenov, he never complains, never blames anybody, but his silence is endurance, not passivity, and finally he earns his freedom. The story, in short, is about hope, and the triumph of human spirit against all odds.
Tolstoy's story... Well.........

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Phonetic punctuation and other videos of the brilliant Victor Borge

Just saw this hilarious video on All Things Linguistic. This is a must-watch.

I 1st knew about Victor Borge from this act:

And here are some other videos:

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dostoyevsky's underground man on reason, life and suffering

"What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit, would put it in 2nd place and throw themselves onto another path, a risk, a perchance, not compelled by anyone or anything, but precisely as if they simply did not want the designated path, and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark."

"... what is man without desires, without will, and without wantings, if not a sprig in an organ barrel?"

"You see: reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man's reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life- that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches. And though our life in this manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is life and not just the extraction of a square root."

"Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat ginger bread, and worry about the noncessation of world history- and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. [...] It is precisely his fantastic dreams, his most banal stupidity, that he will wish to keep hold of, with the sole purpose of confirming to himself (as if it were so very necessary) that human beings are still human beings and not piano keys..."

"... why are you so firmly, so solemnly convinced that only the normal and the positive, in short, that only well-being, is profitable for man? Is reason not perhaps mistaken as to profits? Maybe man does not love well-being only? Maybe he loves suffering just as much? [...] For man sometimes loves suffering terribly much, to the point of passion, and that is a fact. Here there's not even any need to consult world history; just ask yourself, if you're a human being and have had any life at all. As for my personal opinion, to love just well-being alone is even somehow indecent. [...] I'm certain that man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Suffering- why, this is the sole cause of consciousness. Though I did declare at the beginning that consciousness, in my opinion, is man's greatest misfortune, still I know that man loves it and will not exchange it for any satisfactions..."

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky- Notes from Underground, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Thursday, 22 May 2014

[More or less a rant] On high heels

Just walked around barefoot, and enjoyed it highly (except when the road in front of my house hurt my feet a bit). Maybe I should do that again soon. It's like eating with the hands instead of using cutlery- though I don't often do so, when I do, it's such a pleasure.
That might need a more detailed post.
Anyway, this one is about high heels. So let's be straightforward and spit it out:
I hate high heels! Satan's shoes they are. 
Maybe I should blame Oslo's roads, maybe I should blame my own lack of femininity, my big feet, my thin skin (which, methinks, is due to the cold). After all, for all of my life I have chosen convenience and comfort over [whatever you call it- beauty?], chosen shirts or t-shirts and jeans instead of dresses or skirts, chosen sport shoes or sneakers instead of high heels or doll shoes or sandals or anything feminine.
In some ways, high heels are like Chinese foot binding, just less extreme, and not obligatory.
Supposed to make women more beautiful and elegant? ✓
Change our way of walking? ✓
Restrict our mobility, make us unable to walk fast or run? ✓
Painful, especially if we have to walk in them for many hours? ✓
Demand that wearers prize style over mobility? ✓
Demand sacrifice? ✓
Force us to spend more time taking care of our feet? ✓ 
Make us prone to accidents? ✓
Pose health risks? ✓
Disfigure our bones? ✓

Besides, to be frank I find very few high heels really nice. Pointed shoes? Nah. Pumps with large fronts? Nah. Kitten heels? Nah. Extremely thin heels? Nah. Extremely high heels? Nah. Wedges? Nah. Women are not necessarily sexier wearing them, either. Walk unsteadily? Nah. Walk hesitantly? Nah. Stride? No no no. 

In the past, I disliked high heels merely a bit more than dresses and skirts, and never found them particularly appealing. Only had a soft spot for 1 type. But now, having experienced the torture (which made me take the shoes off and walk barefoot), I hate them with the fire of 1000 suns. 
I'll stick to my usual types of shoes. 
Not feminine? That's OK. I've never been, and I doubt that those Satan's shoes can help anyway.
Here is someone who shares the same 'enemy', the lovely, witty Emma Thompson: 

PS: It should be clarified that my view on high heels, in spite of the comparison above, is less feminist than personal. And I don't condemn people that wear high heels, even if they're feminists- it's their choice. 

Update on 18/6/2014: 
The photo above was stolen. So is this one: +

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Notes from underetasjen

I am a sick girl... I am a wicked girl. An unattractive girl. I think my back aches. However, I don't know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me. I am not being treated and have rarely been, though I respect medicine and doctors. What's more, I am also superstitious in the extreme; well, at least enough to respect medicine. (I'm sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am). No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of wickedness. Now, you will certainly not be so good as to understand this. Well, sir, but I understand it. I will not, of course, be able to explain to you precisely who is going to suffer in this case from my wickedness; I know perfectly well that I will in no way "muck things up" for the doctors by not taking their treatment; I know better than anyone that by all this I am harming only myself and no one else. But still, if I don't get treated, it is out of wickedness. My back aches; well, then let it ache even worse! 


You must wonder why I keep writing about my pain. There is pleasure in a backache, I will answer. Writing about it is like moaning. I had a backache for almost a week. Here, of course, one does not remain silently angry, one moans; but these are not straightforward moans, they are crafty moans, and the craftiness is the whole point. These moans express the pleasure of the one who is suffering; if they did not give her pleasure, she wouldn't bother moaning. It's a good example, gentlemen, and I shall develop it. In these moans there is expressed, 1st, all the futility of our pain, so humiliating for our consciousness, and all the lawfulness of nature, on which, to be sure, you spit, but from which you suffer all the same, while it does not. There is expressed the consciousness that your enemy is nowhere to be found, and yet there is pain; the consciousness that, despite all possible Wagenheims, you are wholly the slave of your back; that if someone wishes, your back will stop aching, and if not, it will go on aching for another 3 weeks; and that, finally, if you still do not agree, and protest even so, then the only consolation you have left is to whip yourself, or give your wall a painful beating with your fist, and decidedly nothing else. Well, sir, it is with these bloody offenses, with these mockeries from no one knows whom, that the pleasure finally begins, sometimes reaching the highest sensuality. I ask you, gentlemen: listen sometime to the moaning of an educated girl of the 21st century who is suffering from a backache- say, on the 2nd or 3rd day of her ailment, when she's beginning to moan not as she did on the 1st day, that is, not simply because she has a backache, not like some coarse peasant, but like a person touched by development and European civilisation, like a person who has "renounced the soil and popular roots", as they say. Her moans somehow turn bad, nastily wicked, and continue for whole days and nights. Yet she herself knows that her moans will be of no use to her; she knows better than anyone that she is only straining and irritating herself and others in vain; she knows that even the public before whom she is exerting herself, and her whole family, are already listening to her with loathing; do not believe even in a pennyworth of it, and understand in themselves that she could moan differently, more simply, without roulades and flourishes, and that it's just from spite and crafiness that she is playing around like that. Now it is in all these consciousnesses and disgraces that the sensuality consists.


OK, I'm kidding. I take back the last sentence of the 1st passage. These passages (with some modifications) fit me perfectly, including the fact that I refuse to see doctors and pharmacists out of wickedness, but the similarities stop there. I feel very, very alive already, with every fibre of my being, amidst all this pain, but that's it- Nå er det nok!


Rereading "Notes from Underground". 
I start to feel that it may not be a very good idea to compare and contrast this book and "Invisible Man" in my essay- must cram lots of things into 5 pages, remove some, hurry through some others. But it's too late now to change, and I don't think there's anything else I'd like to write about.

"Philistines and Philistinism" (Vladimir Nabokov)

Appears in "Lectures on Russian Literature" (source:

A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time. I have said "full-grown person" because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron. "Vulgarian" is more or less synonymous with "philistine": the stress in a vulgarian is not so much on the conventionalism of a philistine as on the vulgarity of some of his conventional notions. I may also use the terms genteel and bourgeois. Genteel implies the lace-curtain refined vulgarity which is worse than simple coarseness. To burp in company may be rude, but to say "excuse me" after a burp is genteel and thus worse than vulgar. The term bourgeois I use following Flaubert, not Marx. Bourgeois in Flaubert's sense is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. A bourgeois is a smug philistine, a dignified vulgarian.

A philistine is not likely to exist in a very primitive society although no doubt rudiments of philistinism may be found even there. We may imagine, for instance, a cannibal who would prefer the human head he eats to be artistically colored, just as the American philistine prefers his oranges to be painted orange, his salmon pink, and his whiskey yellow. But generally speaking philistinism presupposes a certain advanced state of civilization where throughout the ages certain traditions have accumulated in a heap and have started to stink.

Philistinism is international. It is found in all nations and in all classes. An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen. The mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois. A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.

Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, "Is it warm enough for you?" but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, "Hullo, how are you?" it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, "Fine"; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.

The character I have in view when I say "smug vulgarian" is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as "Beauty," "Love," "Nature," "Truth," and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.

The philistine, in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting next to him. The philistine is often a snob. He is thrilled by riches and rank—"Darling, I've actually talked to a duchess!"

A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature—his essential nature is anti-artistic—but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines. He is a faithful reader of the Saturday Evening Post, and when he reads he identifies himself with the characters. If he is a male philistine he will identify himself with the fascinating executive or any other big shot—aloof, single, but a boy and a golfer at heart; or if the reader is a female philistine—a philistinette—she will identify herself with the fascinating strawberry-blonde secretary, a slip of a girl but a mother at heart, who eventually marries the boyish boss. The philistine does not distinguish one writer from another; indeed, he reads little and only what may be useful to him, but he may belong to a book club and choose beautiful, beautiful books, a jumble of Simone de Beauvoir, Dostoevski, Marquand, Somerset Maugham, Dr. Zhivago, and Masters of the Renaissance. He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh's or Whistler's respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.

In his love for the useful, for the material goods of life, he becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business. Ads may be very good ads—some of them are very artistic—that is not the point. The point is that they tend to appeal to the philistine's pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear. I mean the following kind of ad: just come to the family is a radio set or a television set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver—anything will do). It has just come to the family: Mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around all agog; Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background; and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, stands triumphant Dad or Pop, the Proud Donor.

Small boys and girls in ads are invariably freckled, and the smaller fry have front teeth missing. I have nothing against freckles (in fact I find them very becoming in live creatures) and quite possibly a special survey might reveal that the majority of small American-born Americans are freckled, or else perhaps another survey might reveal that all successful executives and handsome housewives had been freckled in their childhood. I repeat, I have really nothing against freckles as such. But I do think there is considerable philistinism involved in the use made of them by advertisers and other agencies. I am told that when an unfreckled, or only slightly freckled, little boy actor has to appear on the screen in television, an artificial set of freckles is applied to the middle of his face. Twenty-two freckles is the minimum: eight freckles over each cheekbone and six on the saddle of the pert nose. In the comics, freckles look like a case of bad rash. In one series of comics they appear as tiny circles. But although the good cute little boys of the ads are blond or redhaired, with freckles, the handsome young men of the ads are generally dark haired and always have thick dark eyebrows. The evolution is from Scotch to Celtic.

The rich philistinism emanating from advertisements is due not to their exaggerating (or inventing) the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. Of course, the world they create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make-believe. The amusing part is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals, or a world where the game of the senses is played according to bourgeois rules, but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts—especially in this wise quiet country.

Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism—poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. It is possible to maintain that a simple, uncivilized man is seldom if ever a poshlust since poshlism presupposes the veneer of civilization. A peasant has to become a townsman in order to become vulgar. A painted necktie has to hide the honest Adam's apple in order to produce poshlism.

It is possible that the term itself has been so nicely devised by Russians because of the cult of simplicity and good taste in old Russia. The Russia of today, a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing poshlism because Soviet Russia is so full of its special brand, a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture; but in the old days a Gogol, a Tolstoy, a Chekhov in quest of the simplicity of truth easily distinguished the vulgar side of things as well as the trashy systems of pseudo-thought. But poshlists are found everywhere, in every country, in this country as well as in Europe—in fact poshlism is more common in Europe than here, despite our American ads.

Vladimir Nabokov 

Monday, 19 May 2014

"To be all things to all men"

The idea for this post comes from here:
"Know how to be all things to all men. A wise Proteus, he who is learned with the learned, and with the pious, pious: it is the great way of winning all to you: for to be like, is to be liked. Observe each man's spirit and adapt yourself: to the serious, or to the jovial, as the case may be, by following the fashion, through a politic change within yourself: a veritable necessity in those who are dependent. But this great rule of life calls for rich talent: being least difficult to that man of the world whose mind is filled with knowledge, and whose spirit is filled with taste." (Baltasar Gracian)

The topic is so interesting, I'd like to share some thoughts.
Well, let's say, I divide people roughly into 5 groups:
1/ Inflexible. Frank and straightforward to the point of being rude and unpleasant. Open. Cannot hide their own dislike, aversion, contempt. Can scarcely be insincere (though once in a while they have to). Sometimes tactless and insensitive, mistaking rudeness for frankness.
Not bothering to please others and win friends, these people can create difficulties for themselves- become unpopular, get into trouble with people, displease employers/ teachers/ colleagues, hamper their own careers and may even create many unnecessary enemies. There might even be something egoistic in their insistence on voicing their thoughts and staying true to themselves regardless of whom they're being with, in their refusal to adjust their own manners to different people.
E.g: Marianne Dashwood, Bazarov, LC, HT, me (especially back then in high school), etc.
2/ Inflexible. Can never be two-faced because they are simple, artless and genuine (and not good judges of character), rather than because they have a strong personality. Such people are more likeable than those in the 1st group, but may encounter problems of a different kind, such as being used.
E.g: Catherine Morland, Harriet Smith, Sj, etc.
3/ More flexible. Sensitive, tactful. Adjust themselves to different people. Talk about things in which the other person is also interested, avoid topics that might lead to unnecessary conflicts. Express opinions in a way that doesn't insult others, choose words and phrasing with care but do have opinions, especially in important matters. Civil and polite without becoming deceitful or insincere (e.g seeing something horrendously ugly, they say tentatively that it's OK/ nice/ all right..., not wonderful/ gorgeous/ amazing). These people do have a clear idea whom they consider friends, whom not, and generally keep a distance from those they don't like, unless they're forced to work with them, i.e don't try to be close to those they don't like.
E.g: Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, J, M, DC, etc.
4/ Flexible. Can adapt to different people. Diplomatic. These people are not exactly deceitful and manipulative, but they try to maintain a relationship with everybody and create no enemy. Generally liked though possibly not to depend on. Stand up for no one and defend nothing. Stay away from trouble, never get involved in other people's problems, even friends'. Have no opinion. Survive.
E.g: Oblonsky, NT, MA, MT, etc.
5/ Chameleons. Hypocritical, manipulative, cunning, calculating, dishonest. Friendly and affectionate towards everybody. Say what others want to hear. Master the art of flattery. Talk around anything, can always justify themselves and change their own meanings. Very popular.
These people are very likely to have influence, to succeed and to move up the career track. Can easily achieve what they want. Can also have lots of acquaintances. But because they are unreliable and, due to their deceitful nature, are not open, I doubt that they can have very good friends. They can be very close friends with those of the same type, with whom they can discuss their schemes and everything, but these friends are also deceitful and therefore untrustworthy.
E.g: Lucy Steele, Isabella Thorpe, Caroline Bingley, Susan Vernon, Mary Crawford, William Elliot, George Wickham, S, V, QH, etc.

(This is very general, so don't give me a fictional character or a real person and ask me which group he or she belongs to). 

Baltasar Gracian's quote, if you look back at it, may refer to type 3, 4 or 5. As type 3 is the best way for which we should strive, there is a grain of truth in the advice, but I cannot completely agree with the quote- Baltasar Gracian's phrasing makes me think more of people in group 5, the obnoxious phonies. I detest hypocrites more than anything.
People in group 4 are, on principle, better, but they are less detectable and may sometimes cause much deeper pain. 
Me? I think like Anne Elliot: "She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped." 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Virginia Woolf's essays: reading& writing

Currently pause the reading of "Orlando" to focus on exams, but in the breaks, I move onto Virginia Woolf's essays (Oxford World Classics: "Selected essays"), believing that some of her ideas on literature are interesting and may very well be used some time.
Once in a while, after reading a writer's works, I read (parts of) their diaries or letters to understand the process of writing, and their essays to see their views on writings and how their ideas and principles are demonstrated in their own works. That can be interesting. Here, whilst discussing fiction in general and other writers- predecessors as well as contemporaries, Virginia Woolf reveals a lot about herself.
For example, in "How it strikes a contemporary", she says time has changed and many things have changed ("We are sharply cut off from our predecessors"), writers of her age can no longer use the tool of their predecessors.
In  "Modern fiction", her view's clearer:
"Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."
"It is, at any rate, in some such fashion as this that we seek to define the quality which distinguishes the work of several young writers, among whom Mr. James Joyce is the most notable, from that of their predecessors. They attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist. [...] Any one who has read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see."
I have no comment on James Joyce- but isn't this what she also does? Not really in "Orlando", when writing "Orlando" she already moves onto something else, but one can see that in "Mrs Dalloway", by abandoning plot and other conventions but following the thoughts of her characters, mostly Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, on 1 day, she's attempting to come closer to life. Her poetic impressionism is such an attempt to capture and explore what goes on in a person's mind, all the impressions and thoughts and memories and emotions.  
I am aware that Virginia Woolf is not for everybody, having seen many people call her dull, boring, overrated (as a novelist though not necessarily as an essayist). But those who deny or fail to see her contribution to literature and modernism, her poetic prose, her experiments in form and method, her stream of consciousness technique and attempt to come closer to life, prove themselves ignoramuses. Whether one likes her personally is, I suppose, personal.
Then she ends her essay with:
"“The proper stuff of fiction” does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss..."
In "Character in fiction", after saying that the urge to write novels comes when a figure of a man or a woman appears and says "Catch me if you can", she tells a story of sitting near a woman on a train, feeling curious about her and wanting to write about her.
(I've experienced that lots of times. In fact, the last time was on Thursday, I was waiting for the train when 2 men, a rather stout middle-aged Norwegian man and a skinny Thai guy (Vietnamese-looking but apparently Thai) caught my attention, the former speaking English slowly, trying to enunciate every single word, the latter mostly nodding and smiling, apparently knowing very little English and perhaps no Norwegian, now and then turning towards me with an awkward look, perhaps wondering if I came from his country. My curiosity was roused initially by their figures, and then their conversation- or should I call monologue?- and facial expressions. I wanted to know more about them, and write about them (and even though nothing suggested it, I wanted to write that the Thai guy's some sort of gigolo for older, richer men- don't ask me why). But the moment the train stopped at Oslo S and we got off it and walked in different directions, there was no more to it. And I don't have the talent to turn it into a story). 
"The story ends without any point to it. But I have not told you this anecdote to illustrate either my own ingenuity or the pleasure of travelling from Richmond to Waterloo. What I want you to see in it is this. Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved."
Throughout most of the essay, she comments on some contemporary writers, and emphasises again that "the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use".
And ends her essay beautifully:
"Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.
But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown."
I reckon, this is the reason I'm not crazy about "Doctor Zhivago", "The electric kool-aid acid test" or "The French lieutenant's woman" (at least, initially). The 1st book is more about the revolution, the war, the Soviet era, the atmosphere, Pasternak paints the picture very vividly, but is so weak at his characters, their interactions and relationships. The 2nd book is more about the hippie culture, the 60s atmosphere in the US, the Pranksters with their acid tests and existentialism, with Ken Kesey presented like a religious leader. The 3rd one has very pale characters, more like shadows; the brilliance of the novel is in the way John Fowles compares today's society and Victorian one, explores the history of literature and makes fun of some conventions in novel writing. Maybe I shouldn't say that novels must follow certain rules, meet certain requirements, but that I don't fully appreciate these books because of me rather than the books themselves- generally I'm simply more interested in human beings, in individuals than some abstract things like cultures, movements, lifestyles, etc.
Anyhow, let's stop the digressions and go back to Virginia Woolf's essays.
In "How should one read a book?", after discussing the different ways in which Defoe, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy might describe a beggar, she says:
"Frequent are the complaints that Jane Austen is too prosaic, Thomas Hardy too melodramatic. And we have to remind ourselves that it is necessary to approach every writer very differently to get from him all he can give us. We have to remember that it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision. It is by reason of this masterliness of theirs, this uncompromising idiosyncrasy, that great writers often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith, from Richardson to Kipling, is to be wrenched and distorted, thrown this way and then that."
This is an important point. I must slip into a certain mindset to enjoy Jane Austen's novels. 1 of the things that bug me about some extreme Janeites is that, so fond of their no.1 favourite writer, they have the same mindset when approaching every literary work and expect all other writers to write like Jane Austen, which makes them unable to recognise the greatness of writers who have very different styles, methods or temperaments.
Then she adds:
"Besides, everyone is born with a natural bias of his own in one direction rather than in another. He instinctively accepts Hardy's vision rather than Jane Austen's, and, reading with the current and not against it, is carried on easily and swiftly by the impetus of his own bent to the heart of his author's genius. But then Jane Austen is repulsive to him. He can scarcely stagger through the desert of her novels.
Sometimes this natural antagonism is too great to be overcome, but trial is always worth making."
This is true. Some writers I like instantly, like Tolstoy, Salinger, Toni Morrison... some others take more time, like Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf... It is natural that we more easily accept a writer's vision than another's, but the key point is that one shouldn't impose limits on oneself but should try to expand one's taste.
"Women and fiction" has many arguments and claims that I have seen in "A room of one's own" (opportunities- among the 4 great female novelists of the 19th century, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, none had a child and 2 were unmarried, I should also add Virginia Woolf's childless; experience, etc.) She says, works by women around this time often have 1 element that reveal the author's sex- anger, which "introduces distortion and is frequently a cause of weakness".
"The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distracting effect, as if the spot at which the reader's attention is directed were suddenly twofold instead of single."
Not everyone's like that, of course: "The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations and to hold on their way unperturbed by scorn or censure. But it needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger."
But then, coming to the next paragraph, I'm not sure if I agree:
"The woman writer is no longer bitter. She is no longer angry. She is no longer pleading and protesting as she writes."
From what I see, Virginia Woolf does escape the tendency to break off from narrative to complain and reach (at least most of the time), as Charlotte Bronte sometimes does in "Jane Eyre", but whether female writers indeed become more aloof and calm, and less bitter, in her time or in my time, I can't say with certainty.
A while ago I saw this article:
I'm rather irritated by some people's tendency to see women always as victims and men as bastards, to call everything examples of gender inequality. Is it because of bitterness and anger that there are not many successful, important female writers even today, when women have more freedom and opportunities? Even if there's no direct rant, it's tiresome and torturous enough to encounter topics such as child abuse and rape and bereavement so often- no wonder men tend to be prejudiced against books by women.
(Off-topic: is this why I prefer "CSI" to "Law& order: SVU"?)

I guess that's all I'd like to say. This post, after all, is not meant to be a review of the book (which consists of 30 essays). Rather, I'm keeping and discussing some ideas I find fascinating. 

[One must agree with James Joyce- her wolfish name is indeed appropriate. Imagine a name like Virginia Stephen attached to such novels and such essays!]

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Virginia Woolf mocking

people who object to (wild) experiments and who bemoan the deterioration of literature, nostalgic for a golden age in the past that contemporary literature, in their opinion, doesn't match.

"All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.
How that could be with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Browne, Donne, all now writing or just having written, Orlando, reeling off the names of his favourite heroes, could not think.
Greene laughed sardonically. Shakespeare, he admitted, had written some scenes that were well enough; but he had taken them chiefly from Marlowe. Marlowe was a likely boy, but what could you say of a lad who died before he was thirty? As for Browne, he was for writing poetry in prose, and people soon got tired of such conceits as that. Donne was a mountebank who wrapped up his lack of meaning in hard words. The gulls were taken in; but the style would be out of fashion twelve months hence. As for Ben Jonson — Ben Jonson was a friend of his and he never spoke ill of his friends.
No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek. In such ages men cherished a divine ambition which he might call La Gloire (he pronounced it Glawr, so that Orlando did not at first catch his meaning). Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell. Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty. Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments — neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment. Much though it hurt him to say it — for he loved literature as he loved his life — he could see no good in the present and had no hope for the future. Here he poured himself out another glass of wine."
(From "Orlando")

This can also apply well to other fields such as visual arts, cinema, music, linguistics, etc. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

As Orlando awoke 1 morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a woman.

For the time being, I don't know what to make of Orlando's sudden sex change (a satire or a more 'literal' version of Freud's idea about the development of a feminine identity? an absurd situation in which the character is trapped, as in existentialist works? a grotesque change of perspective, change of role which forces the protagonist to rethink his/her own former views? a depiction of Vita's different sexual roles, the inspiration for "Orlando"? an exploration of gender and the differences between the 2 sexes? pure comedy? etc.)
1 thing I find striking is that Orlando, after a 7-day sleep, wakes up to find himself transformed into a woman and yet shows no sign of perturbation or confusion. Orlando doesn't even pay it much thought, but gets dressed (unisex clothes) and goes on with his/her life, and albeit leaving his/her place, does it as if in a trance and lives as if no change occurred. Such reaction is remarkably similar to Gregor's reaction when he turns into an insect in "The metamorphosis". 
Any chance Virginia Woolf thought of Franz Kafka when writing this passage? 
Or is it random? 
Or were they inspired by the same source? 

Separating the art from the artist: A response

Before continuing, you'd better read or skim through this post:
Rick, the author, asks in the end:
"Are you able to separate the art from the artist? Is there a particular writer or painter or actor that you admire, despite serious character flaws? What allows you (or someone you know, even) to make that distinction between art and life? Is that distinction important?"


Let's assume there are 2 standpoints, put simply as:
1/ Unable to separate the art from the artist at all.
Look back at the quote above, one must ask what counts as "serious character flaws". Because of the sentence "Charles Dickens was absolutely terrible to his wife", I assume it extends further than political views. So the question is: what if you dig deeper and it turns out that every single acclaimed writer has some "flaws"? What if each writer is either sexist or racist or xenophobic or bigoted or homophobic or snobbish or extremely egocentric? Or communist or fascist or pro some totalitarian regime or in favour of things like slavery or segregation? What if many writers are assholes in real life: domineering, deceitful, pathologically dishonest, hypocritical, horrible to husband/ wife/ children, stingy, violent, etc.?
Look at my favourite writers.
Lev Tolstoy? Politically naive. Idealist. Horrible to his wife. Dominating.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite.
Virginia Woolf? A snob. And anti-Semite.
F. Scott Fitzgerald? Anti-Semite.
William Faulkner? Racist. Pro-slavery or something. Pathological liar.
Vladimir Nabokov? Homophobic. Extremely arrogant and narcissistic. Sexist.
Charlotte Bronte? Apparently xenophobic- "Jane Eyre" is full of ethnic slurs.
Milan Kundera? Communist, at least in the past.   
Gustave Flaubert? Had syphilis. 
(I'm not sure about Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Emily and Anne Bronte, Ivan Turgenev, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, etc. but I'll certainly find something. But then I myself also have some views others may object to). 
I can't help feeling that if you keep looking for ethics and morality and whatever in authors, then perhaps there aren't many books left to read.

2/ Always able to separate the art completely from the artist.
Nope, I don't believe those who claim that.
Writers can't separate their own political views from their writings. As long as they depict a society and present some groups of people in a certain way, explicitly or implicitly express approval or disapproval of some social issues, critique something in society- no, as long as they hold a pen and start writing, they can't leave their political views out of their fiction. How can one? It's one's worldview. Literature is always political.
(Think Jane Austen's works aren't political because she seems to deal with romance and marriage? They are political. That can be seen in, e.g, her critique of gender inequality and primogeniture. I also consider it political the way she satirises 'the sentimental novel' and some banal literary devices and tendencies in literature of her time, and the way she refuses to let 'masculine values' dominate her works). 
Similarly, readers read a book, with their own political views in the back of their mind. There may be times when you, whilst reading a novel, argue in your head- nope, nope, you're wrong; no, I disagree; what the fox are you thinking, etc. I read not only as a reader, not only as a human being, but also as a woman, as a feminist, as an East Asian or more specifically a Vietnamese or even more specifically a Southerner, as a person living in Norway, as an anti-communist, as a pro-democracy person, as an agnostic, and who knows what else. All these views make me who I am, and I can't leave them behind when approaching a work of art. And I believe it's the same for everybody- even professional critics have that personal factor.
The best thing one can do is to be able to recognise and acknowledge the aesthetic values of the book, one can't like it more personally if the views presented in book are too opposed to one's own. Even that can be difficult.


Go back to Rick's questions, here are my thoughts:
1/ Some prejudices, stereotypes and views are less acceptable now than in the past.
I find it rather unfair (for lack of a better word) to dismiss a great writer of the beginning of the 20th century, or earlier, for some limited views, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia... I may forgive a man in the 19th century for his misogyny, even if it's quite irritating. Society's progressing, the world's more connected, many countries are now multicultural, there have been movements and changes of law, people come to understand and accept many things that were once considered repulsive, sick or morally wrong, we're generally more tolerant, liberal, understanding... (or supposed to be, at least).
However, it's precisely because we're supposed to be more modern and open-minded that I might have problems with conservative, close-minded, intolerant, ignorant writers of today. Not only writers, but artists in general, especially those who create something, such as film directors, painters, screenwriters..., instead of, say, actors. Time matters. Distorted depiction of people of darker skin a few centuries ago, due to ignorance and lack of contact with other cultures, is forgivable, such as the emphasis on the Creole origin of Bertha Mason and other ethnic slurs in "Jane Eyre". But I cannot tolerate the depiction of Indians as savages, who eat beetles, eyeball soup, baby snakes and monkey brains, in the 1984 film "Indiana Jones and the temple of doom".
Similarly, I may understand that some people in mid-20th century were attracted to Marxism, but if someone today still swoons over Lenin and Stalin, or admires Mao and defends the CCP, that's another story.

2/ A writer's personal life is not my concern.
I don't really care how Charles Dickens treated his wife. It doesn't affect my perception of "Great expectations" or "A Christmas carol".
After all, I do make a distinction between the author and the person (which is why, when asked which writers I'd like to invite to dinner, I can't think of anybody). And I don't have the illusion that a writer who has an incredible ability to create vivid characters and slip into their minds and understand them, must be magnanimous, sensitive, kind, warm-hearted, moral, trustworthy... A writer's personal life, with all the foibles, pet peeves, odd habits, nuisances, eccentricities..., is outside his or her works.
(Should we stop reading Jane Austen because we think that a spinster couldn't understand relations between men and women? Should we stop reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath because we think that suicidal, mentally sick people had nothing to give us?...) 
Or maybe it's better to say: I make a distinction between the implied author and the real author. 
To me, a literary critic doesn't have to create great fiction to be a critic, and a novelist doesn't have to be a kind person to be a novelist. 
In extreme cases, I understand some people's decision to boycott artists who are, say, paedophiles or rapists, saying that buying their works is equivalent to supporting them, but I still watch Roman Polanski's films (or is it because his wrongdoings were committed some decades ago?).

3/ I care more about political views. But it also depends on whether they're obvious in the works, whether they affect my reading.
Marquez had some crazy views, but I don't see them in "100 years of solitude", "Chronicle of a death foretold" or "Memories of my melancholy whores".
Neither do I have problems with Albert Camus's crazy views when reading "The stranger" and "The misunderstanding", which I love.
Nabokov's sexism and homophobia are hardly seen in his novels, at least the ones I've read.
Zhang Yimou is 1 of those cases I feel sorry about, an enormous talent who sold his soul to the devil (by "the devil" I mean the CCP). Since "Hero", his films stink. But his early films are still great, some are masterpieces, especially "To live", "Raise the red lanterns" and "Red sorghum".
Politically, I can't stand Bernardo Bertolucci, but "Last tango in Paris" is very good; Oliver Stone, but "Wall Street" is well-done and tolerable; Jean-Luc Godard, but "Vivre sa vie" is thought-provoking and lovely, etc.
"The quiet American" I regard as rubbish, though Graham Greene's prose is likeable. "The book of Daniel" I may admire for E. L. Doctorow's artistry but can't like it any more than that. I don't regret reading them, but can't say whether I'll read their other books.

4/ Most important is obviously still the quality. Are the books worth reading? Are they great enough for readers to endure the authors' stupid, extreme opinions?
One cannot read all the books one wants to read in a lifetime- life is too short to spend time on bad books, let alone bad books by bigots.


Go back to Rick's post. 
Would I read David Gilmore's books? Let's see. 
Generally, I don't pay much thought to the question about separating the art from the artist, because most of the writers I read were dead a while ago (or a long, long time ago), and their ways of thinking were rather shaped by the societies in which they lived. I may be more demanding when it comes to today's writers, but then I usually don't read them. Which is to say, now when I pick up a contemporary book, I'll be quite selective, and David Gilmore's probably not that interesting. How to put it, it's like, he's not praised that often (who knows whether he'll be read in another 50 years?). I would be more interested in Orhan Pamuk, Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Amis, John Irving, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, etc. (yes, this is a confession- I haven't read their works). 
Considering his statement, I understand that he prefers to teach stuff he loves. To me, he's not exactly sexist- a feminist as I am, I don't use the word 'sexist' to label everyone and everything. But personally I find him rather limited. When a guy says that he only likes books by male authors, I don't think that women's books are not as well-written or fascinating as men's, I think that guy's limited.


I may or may not read V. S. Naipaul's books. Can't say.
So far, my impression of him is quite negative: self-important, racist (with zero understanding of India, so I've heard), intolerant, and above all misogynistic ( If I read his books, I'll read with lots of preconceptions, constantly comparing him to female authors.
Last time I picked up a book of his, or 2, at the library, it seemed contrived and unnatural, therefore ridiculous.
But who knows. There's a possibility that I may read his books and gasp in awe and lower my voice, this man, despite his awful, intolerable personality, writes such magical prose.
Before that, there are still many novels to read.