Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tao Te Ching: Why Lao Tsu Was Really a Libertarian Slacker

Jay and Silent Bob and the chi of the universe. Whoo.
   So, the Tao Te Ching is a philosophical text, and therefore not really a literary classic, but I'm reading it right now while watching Clerks and all I can think is that Lao Tzu (who wrote the TTC) is a total, unabashed, lazy-assed, small-government, go-with-the-flow, Big Lebowski-worshipping, Ayn Rand-reading, libertarian slacker.
But Lao Tsu rode a water buffalo.

     Lao Tzu likes to come across a guy who wanted to teach all of China -- nay, all of the world -- about the Tao, "the way," the thing which Jack Kerouac called "the golden eternity" and Yoda called "the force." But he was also that lovable combination of total slacker and hard-ass libertarian. Take, for instance, chapter 75, which contains this:

                                                  "Why are the people rebellious?
                                                    Because the rulers interfere to much.
                                                    Therefore they are rebellious."

Or, or, or -- how about chapter 57?

                                                  "The more laws and restrictions there are,
                                                    The poorer people become."

      Do you hear that? Is that a man somewhere in Oklahoma, shooting at pigeons from his lawn chair and screaming about healthcare and how government had better get outter his life, goshdarnit? Nope, it's a man riding a water buffalo like 2,600 years ago in China.
     And if you need a slacker, Lao Tzu has also got you covered there. The entire point of the TTC is "non-action." Like in Chapter 43, which reads, "there is power in non-action." Or Chapter 20, which gets all Ken Kesey by starting out saying "stop thinking and end your problems." (Because intellectualism is the root of all problems! Obviously!) Or Chapter 63, which says:                                                                                                                                        
                                                Practice non-action 
                                                Work without doing.
                                                Taste the tasteless.
                                               Magnify the small, increase the few.
                                              Reward the bitterness with care.                  

   If you record a reading the Tao Te Ching and then play it backwards, it's proven that you will end up with David Crosby sending you a mystical message about the powers of turning, turning, turning, stopping and saying "hey, what's that sound," and otherwise not throwing off the groovy groove of the universe. Because, were Lao Tzu alive today, he'd be that washed-up guy with a long beard who says "dude" far too often, most likely spouting off philosophical nonsense outside of, like, a bowling alley or something. And then going to a Ron Paul meeting. 
So, the dude abides. Lao Tzu abides. And presumably rode a water buffalo.
There's always the chance that Jeff Bridges got a hold of a time machine, went to the sixth century BC in China, and wrote a philosophy book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Great Gatsby (Or, F. Scott's Dirty Little Secret)

No, I don't have too much time on my hands.
   Although it is true that I generally don't like most things, there are a few that I absolutely love. I like the the droid at the Star Tours ride at Disneyland; I like Robert Kennedy; I really like Field of Dreams. (He's playing catch with his father. HIS DEAD FATHER. If that doesn't make you cry, you are a heartless, un-American hipster douchebag. Or, you have better things to do with your life than worry about Kevin Costner's well-being. Which I guess isn't a bad thing.) But, most of all, I really, really like The Great Gatsby. I free-lanced myself as a Gatsby essay-editor my junior year of high school, just because I liked that book so goddamn much that I would happily devote my free time to reading the essays of slightly more socially-adjusted teenagers. 
     I mean, it's beautiful: you have F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man deeply indebted to a largely apathetic social structure which he both derided and desired to join, who goes from middle-class anonymity in the Midwest to world renown (only greater after his death by alcoholism, no less), all while falling into the very decadent nihilism that he was trying to observe in the first place. I nerdgasm just thinking about it. By some sort of loyalty to F. Scott Fitz-geezy, I refuse to like Ernest Hemingway, but I did read all the Scott-related chapters of A Movable Feast, so I know from a very reliable (and very succinct) source that Mr. Fitzgerald had some issues with the size of a certain male appendage. I have very strong feelings about Princeton (sorry, I can't appreciate the school from This Side of Paradise, I just can't), and about Zelda Fitzgerald.
   The Great Gatsby, though, is the pinnacle of everything else in the Fitzgerald universe. The story itself is pretty simple: guy loves girl, girl is married, guy fails to discover that girl is a heartless psycho-bitch, guy is gunned down in a swimming pool. There are some parties thrown in here and there, a few affairs, some good flashbacks, a golf conspiracy. But this is one of those books that isn't really the sum of its parts -- it's the goddamn American dream, all in a tidy little package. There's Tom Buchanan, with his mistresses and white supremacy; Nick Carraway, the supporting character in his own life; bootlegging, Jewish mafias, a basically abandoned toddler (good parenting, Daisy, good parenting), and the weirdest seduction scene in literary history (I'm talking, of course, about the scene in Gatsby's house while Klipspringer plays the piano and Nick watches as Daisy throws Gatsby's satin shirts across into a pile, stating that she's never seen such beautiful shirts before.) There's some good ol' fashioned torture porn (I still don't understand Fitzgerald's need to describe, in detail, how Myrtle Wilson's whorish boob looks as her body is splattered all over the roadside. I can be kinky, but I'm not that kinky.)
My beautiful shirts bring all the boys to the yard
     Yes, I realize that the characters in this book are wealthy, vacuous, detestable, soulless, empty, mean-spirited assholes, but I think that's kind of the point: they're not likable, but they're real. There are girls who will utilize the little bit of social standing they have at the expense of everyone else around them (here's looking at you, Daisy). There are men who will rub their jockstraps in everyone's faces, and cheat on their wives, and then get all Freddy Kruger when their wife returns the favor -- and there are women just like Myrtle Wilson, who will gladly flock to the douchey glamour of the Tom Buchanans of the world. The book has some really beautiful moments, too: Nick watching all the lonely souls of New York, the green light at the end of the dock (heavy handed metaphors all up in hurrrrrr), the eyes of the billboard looking over the Valley of Ashes. It also has some incredibly idiotic plot devices (note to Jay Gatsby: let's NOT take the blame for the bitch driving the car, even if she is kind of hot and is nice to you and ohmygodshe'stheloveofyourlife) and a hero who, though charismatic and iconic, is also self-absorbed, greedy, and too fucking stupid to realize that he loves a girl who will never, ever be with him. And then they all move forward, looking for a green light or a green orgastic future or boats and currents or something, and it's the most gorgeous last page in literature.
    So, what have we learned? Love makes you die in a swimming pool, and having a small penis makes you write about people who die in swimming pools. Also, rich people are kind of assholes. Also, the future is green and pretty. Also, the Jazz Age was full of emo alcoholics.
    Oh, and I think the Who wrote a song about The Great Gatsby. I mean, I can't prove it, but come on.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

East of Eden: Adventures in Twincest

     There's this thing in literature called the allegory. Sometimes, people accidentally call it a parable, or an extended metaphor, but the idea is basically the same: the story represents, with symmetrical symbolism, a different story. It's a classic criss-cross. The allegory is really the one literary technique that could easily have been invented by Danny DeVito in Throw Mama From a Train.

     Anyhow, John Steinbeck made the allegory his bitch with East of Eden, a loving tale of brothers, whores, and crushing Irish-Catholic guilt. The thing with this book is, it's kind of predictable. It's heavy on obvious themes and motifs. It is because of this that every high school in America forces its children to read this novel instead of something a little bit more, say, interesting.
     We start out with a description of Salinas, and how li'l Johnny Steinbeck always loved the west and feared the east (ohhhh dang, there's the title.) Next, we go to the East Coast, and get introduced to Adam Trask. Or, more precisely, to his father. And his mother, who drowned herself in a shallow puddle. His father got crabs (if I remember correctly) in the army, and constantly pressured Adam and his half-brother Charles. Adam loves the woman who raises him -- Charles' mother -- but she, and everybody else, adores Charles.
FIRST OVERWHELMING THEME: Younger brothers are kind of evil.
     Charles is a bad seed. We are meant to see him as a bad seed, and Adam as the poor, victimized fuck he is. After joining the army (which kind of sucks), Adam becomes a farmer. Charles becomes a drunk. They fight, and Adam winds up in a ditch. Later, they're living together, and a dirty-looking girl comes up. Adam falls for her, Charles does her, and Adam marries her. But what neither of them realize is...
SECOND OVERWHELMING THEME: Women are bad, bad, bad.
     Cathy is just a crazy psycho-bitch. She loves Alice in Wonderland because she wants to grow so small that she'll disappear. She's odd and beautiful and very, very sexually mature for a young girl. She's also kind of a sociopath.

Granted, if you watch this video enough, you probably will start sticking needles in your uterus, too.

     And it's really easy to hate Cathy, because, even though it wasn't proved, any pre-teen who can fake her own rape is probably capable of starting the fire that destroys her house and entire family. That is, if she really did start the fire.

This guy sure did.
     Basically, the girl is a keeper. She moves out to California with Adam, her husband, and they meet up with Sam Hamilton. And when Cathy finds herself knocked up (with probably Adam's kid, but maybe Charles' -- it's kind of unclear), she stabs her stomach with a needle.
     Sam Hamilton is John Steinbeck's grandfather. (It gets weird from here. If you hated The Hours, this is going to drive you insane.) Steinbeck switches off chapters between Adam's life -- his wife leaving, him being stuck with twin sons, him hiring a servant named Lee who starts out as a stereotypical submissive Chinese man and ends up as a stereotypical wise Chinese man -- and about Sam's life. Sam is  an Irish immigrant with a shady past, a mean Catholic wife, and a lot of kids. He's kind of the heart of Salinas, and the towns around Salinas. Naming Adam's sons is up to Adam, Sam, and Lee. And to do that, they resort to...
THIRD OVERWHELMING THEME: What the Bible can't answer, the Chinese can.
     The three men have a little male bonding over the Book of Genesis. Apparently, Lee is friends with a group of Chinese-Americans who speak fluent Hebrew and have carefully studied Genesis for nearly twenty years. Lee then describes the one problem he's had in decoding scripture: the word timshel, which means "thou may" -- as in, "Thou may conquer sin," not "thou shall" (connotating that the conquering of sin is an order), nor "thou will" (making it seem as though conquering sin is fated.) Although it seems a little early to get to, this leads me to
     The twins -- Aron and Cal, with Aron being the pretty blond elder one and Cal being the dark moody one -- live out the idea that fate, and personality, and whatever, are achieved, not innate. A lot actually does happen: there's something with Adam trying to sell lettuce, Cal makes money growing beans, Aron dates this girl named Abra and then falls kind of in love for a preacher, Cal finds out that his mama is a madam (and also an opium addict! fun!). When Adam refuses to accept the money Cal earned growing beans, Cal shows his brother their mother's true colors, Aron joins the army, Cal gets with Abra,  Aron dies, then Adam has a stroke and everyone sits around and watches. And Lee keeps telling Cal that he won't be evil like his mother, and Cathy keeps telling Cal that he will be, and Cal keeps telling Cal that he is one confused boy. Aron is kind of a little shit. He's all glossy and perfect. But Cal -- oh, Cal. He's got that James Dean thing going on (probably because he was played by James Dean in the movie.) Ultimately, though, Cal is at peace with his father, and with his brother, and Steinbeck is at peace with his family.
FIFTH OVERWHELMING THEME: Redemption and absolution feel mighty nice.
     So there you have it. A 700+ page rant on Salinas, prostitutes, and lettuce. Except, it isn't. It's really an allegorical re-telling of the Book of Genesis. Now you have to read through the whole book matching up characters until the story sounds right on both accounts. Have fun.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pride and Prejudice (Or, Bitches and Ho's of Longbourn)

If you're too lazy to read this, just watch the goddamn movie. Just make sure it's the Colin Firth one, not the Keira Knightley one. So the Darcy in that version is sexy. The movie is unfaithful to the book and is total shit.

Oh, Fitzwilliams. You make me quiver in my nerdy little boots.
NEVER, under ANY circumstance, watch Becoming Jane or the Jane Austen Book Club. Neither film has anything to do with P&P, and both will make you want to punch babies.

So, the Bennets are a “middle-class” English family in the early 1800s (this ain’t no Marxist proletariat middle class – it’s more of a McMansion type of thing). Mr. Bennet is a kindly old sarcastic guy, and his wife, Mrs. Bennet, constantly worries about her five daughters getting hitched. There are Lydia and Kitty, the younger girls who mostly flit about (if alive today, they’d wear Bieber Fever t-shirts and chew Double Bubble), Mary, the ugly bookish one, Jane, the eldest and the hottest and the calmest and the nicest and the blah blah blah, and Lizzy/Elizabeth, who is her father’s favorite and Jane Austen’s favorite the favorite of everyone who’s ever read the book. She’s feisty and intelligent but ultimately wants a man. Lizzy is the bitch, Jane is the saint. They’re like Tina Fey and Amy Poelher, or Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn, or me and virtually every friend I've ever had. Mrs. Bennet wants one of her gals to get with Mr. Bingley, who’s totally loaded (money-wise. not coke-wise), and is hardcore bromancing with Mr. Darcy, who’s one sexy douchebag.

Plot-wise, very little happens. There’s  something about Jane being at Bingley’s estate and then Lizzy getting caught in the rain and whatever. (That scene is super romantic in the shitty Keira Knightley version.) There’s a bitch named Charlotte Lucas who’s besties with Lizzy, and just wants to get married married married for money money money, and people go waltzing and dance with each other and flirt with Bingley and Darcy. Then they talk about Bennet being rich but not that rich, and Bingley having a bitchy, judgmental sister and a really nice house. Lizzy kind of falls for Darcy, in spite of (because of?) the fact that he’s a douche. Oh, and then there’s this little shit named Mr. Collins, who initially wants to jump Jane’s bones, but then finds out about her and Bingley and then decides to try to get with Lizzy. He really just wants to keep Longbourn in the family. He's the Bennets' cousin. He also talks about this old bitch named Lady Catherine de Bourgh all the fucking time. If you watch the movie, you will want to kill the little bugger.

Wickham is a soldier in the militia who’s the son of Darcy’s caretaker, and they have a beef, and he thinks Lizzy is hot. He’s a total cad. Lizzy declines Collins' marriage offer because she thinks she has a chance with sexy-ass Wickham (and because she doesn’t want to marry for money, and because Collins is kind of a little shit whose idea of a proposal is basically, "I'm a preacher, Lady Catherine thinks I'm da bomb, and you're not super ugly"). But Wickham turns out to be kind of a liar and a manbitch and winds up with Lydia, Lizzy’s 16-year-old sister (statutory rapy ftw!) Collins eventually marries Charlotte Lucas.

All the bitches just act bitchy toward each other. Charlotte and Lizzy and Jane are bitchy to and Catherine de Bourgh and Bingley's sister, who are bitchy to them in return. It’s a battle of the very rich versus the kinda rich. If you need to understand this concept further, may I suggest listening to “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates.

The 'stache doesn't lie
Overall, this is good old-fashioned chick lit. You can make the case for it being social commentary, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have a semi-satiric relationship (he’s the whipped husband with a really sad life, she’s the crazy shrew), but, honestly, nothing happens. All this book is good for is convincing generations of females that if we find a snarky douche who treats us like shit, and if we hang around long enough, eventually we’ll discover his sensitive side and he’ll love us forever and ever. Given an early exposure to the films of Bill Murray, I’m only attracted to sarcastic douchebags, and I can attest that, while they may be hot, they are not worth it. Even if they look like Mr. Darcy.

Candide: The Leanest, Meanest Man in the West(phalia)

I read Candide. I loved Candide. It was hilarious. Most of it was sex jokes or jabs at France, the Church, philosophy, etc. It was a mean little book. And I think if Voltaire and I had known each other, we would have totally gotten it on.

Check out the nose. He's like Pinocchio, but a genius.
If you DON'T want a summary, at least read this: The world is either a bunch of individual issues, or big global problems. Either way you look at it, it kinda sucks. If you're a realist, you'll be so pessimistic, you're life will never get better; if you're an idealist, you'll be so optimistic, you're life will also never get better. So, just make jelly at a farm. (I don't mean the Destiny's Child kind of jelly. I mean the pickled-fruit variety.)

Anyways, if you didn't read the novella (yeah, i used literary vocabulary, bitches), I'm using my powers for good and offering a summary. (Yes. Enjoying 18th century satire is actually classified as a superpower.) Basically, there's this German idiot named Candide who's in love with Cunegonde, a girl who lives at the castle where he lives, along with some baron-y people and Dr. Pangloss, an over-optimistic philosopher. Candide's mother was kind of a whore, and Cunegonde's name is a French reference to lady parts. So, Candide makes out with Cunegonde, he gets kicked out of the castle, he ends up in the army, leaves the army, uses his army skills in Portugal, gets Inquisition-ized, meets Pangloss again, and learns that Cunegonde was brutally raped. But then he sees Cunegonde days later, living with this old lady whose ass was cut off! Cunegonde then discusses the Jew who had enslaved her. Anti-semitism insues!

Then Pangloss gets killed publicly, Candide winds up in Buenos Aires with Cunegonde and the ass-less lady (who was the bastard daughter of a pope, btw), but then this king or whatever takes Cunegonde for his harem, so Candide meets this servant named Cacambo. They find El Dorado, where people treat gold like pebbles, and then Candide thinks he'll just leave and be rich instead of hanging out in paradise, so he sends Cacambo to go get Cunegonde and meet him in Venice. Then Candide gets robbed, gets on a boat with a pessimist named Martin, meets a whore and a monk in Paris, meets another monk and another whore in Venice, finds Pangloss alive, learns that Cunegonde is in Constantinople, finds Cunegonde, sees that she's ugly, begrudgingly marries her, and then everyone moves in with him and Cunegonde. The old lady is there, too. 

Everyone is really mopey and unhappy until a Turk tells them to farm, because work is the only thing that makes people happy, so then all the characters embroider and can oranges and just get all domestic.

Martha Stewart says that cultivating your mind garden is a good thing.

The book is scathing. Like, anybody can write a parody, but only a genius can write a satire. The whole point is that li'l Candide spends the whole book saying, "Oh! I live in the best of ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS!!!!," ignoring that his life fucking sucks, and everyone he knows also has fucking sucky lives, and they're all selfish, and keep running into abused whores and slaves who got legs cut off to pay for sugar and etc, and kings who were deposed, and etc. Ultimately, Voltaire wants us all to stop with the dang philosophizing -- whether we're optimists or pessimists, he insists, the world won't actually change, and neither will we, and we'll never be happy, anyway. So. we might as well just get to work.