Monthly Archives: July 2011

Einstein’s Dreams

I don’t know why, but reading this book makes me unbearably sad. Alone at night, obviously, but even while paying bills at the bank, I found myself wanting to cry in the middle of all that productivity. Einstein’s Dreams is all concept; it has no characters, no plot. I have no idea why it affects me so. Somehow it feels like it carries all of the world’s sadness between its pages.

DA lent me this a few weeks back. The book has an ungrounded, ethereal feel; it makes you feel as if it’s simply passing through you. Its clean, simple sentences (not to mention the spacious layout) create this overall effect. The novel concerns itself with the fictional time-dreams that haunt Einstein as he constructs his theory of relativity. It makes you think of humanity from a distant perspective: how our daily decisions mean nothing in the greater scheme of things, how we are all just passing by. But at times it also feels like it’s just a cerebral exercise, a mere experiment in worlds. You have to be in a certain mood when you read this book; else its beauty will just pass through you, like water.

I know it’s the science aspect of all this that should amaze me, but in my reading, time is a peripheral concern—a defining factor, naturally, but only a premise. What I find more valuable (predictably) are the individual stories of humans, their private sorrows. Lightman has been lauded for his ability to bend reality and present alternate versions, in degrees we consider impossible—but is this really what he does here? Circular, three-dimensional, backwards: time is all these things. Not elsewhere, but here. We know this, we have experienced this. How can we call it impossible? Einstein’s Dreams contains so many prisms of truth within its chapters that it seems silly to call it “magical.” This is reality. As seen from an imagined mind, yes, but reality nonetheless.

I had expected myself to love this book wholeheartedly, but it didn’t turn out that way. I loved it in fits and starts, but never completely. Everyone raves about it, but perhaps it just didn’t strike me the same way it did them. I enjoyed reading it, and it made me want to start crying several times, but—that’s all. It’s not the type of book I would be unwilling to part with.

For in each town, late at night, the vacant streets and balconies fill up with their moans.

Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first.

A life is one snowfall. A life is one autumn day. A life is the delicate, rapid edge of a closing door’s shadow.

The Geography of Bliss

“Perhaps the true road to happiness is not to seek it, but to let it find you,” says a rare nugget of Internet wisdom. Perchance true, but definitely not what Eric Weiner had in mind for The Geography of Bliss. The title tells all. In this project, Weiner sought to map out the happiest places in the world, and to find out exactly what makes them tick. He justifies his journey thus: “With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of finding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills.” And so the self-declared grump travels to Bhutan, Iceland, Qatar, and many other countries—even making a detour to unhappy Moldova—to probe the depths of their happiness and solve the puzzle of bliss.

Happiness is a tricky topic. There’s a reason why it’s not found in most literature, why it’s often relegated to the self-help section. For most people, happiness is elusive, abstract; misery is always more interesting. But Weiner handles the question of happiness delicately. He does not presume anything, always backs up his claims with evidence. His ubiquitous use of facts and quotes makes you marvel at how much he knows, or at least the amount of research he’s done. True, his essays exhibit a slightly annoying “it dawned on me” pattern, and some mild manipulation—and yes, even the humor becomes predictable sometimes—but overall Weiner did a marvelous job. I haven’t been to most countries he visited, but somehow I think he presented an honest picture of them.

Despite everything, Weiner presents no certainty about happiness. His conclusions are often followed by a cautionary “Or is it?” It gets a bit frustrating, but it does leave you with a lot of room for contemplation. Once, after reading a chapter, I spent a whole drive home just pondering happiness, and now I find myself rating my own happiness level. Even without the promise of certainty, the author offers insights by the bundle. Of happiness and geography, he says, “By relocating ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be different people.” Reading this, I thought of that one summer I spent in South Korea, and realized I couldn’t agree more.

For me, a place unvisited is like an unrequited love. A dull ache that—try as you might to think it away, to convince yourself that she really wasn’t the right country for you—just won’t leave you in peace.

How amazing, I think, that in this age of broadband and satellite TV, places can still engulf us so thoroughly that they make their world our world.

‘Some people don’t want to be happy, and that’s okay. They want meaningful lives, and those are not always the same as happy lives.’

‘Life is a combination of freedom and destiny, and the beauty is you don’t know which is which.’

Maybe this is how enlightenment happens. Not with a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning but as a steady drip, drip, drip until one day you realize your bucket is full.

Vagabond (1985)

Clearly, I hadn’t had enough. After À Nos Amours, I just had to watch another French film. This time, I dragged Danica with me. Vagabond wasn’t at the top of my list, actually. I didn’t research the titles listed on the festival calendar, but I wanted to see Her Name is Sabine just because it sounded intriguing. Vagabond fit our schedules better though, so after a hearty lunch Danica and I headed over to the UP Film Institute. (I am obviously starting to feel at home there. Right now I’m waiting for the UP leg of Eiga Sai 2011, the Japanese Film Festival.)

The movie opens with Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) lying dead in a wine ditch. Documentary-style, the film recounts the last period of her life from the perspectives of various people she encountered in her wanderings, among them a goat farmer, a tree-researching professor, and a maid. Their testimonies cull together a vague image of Mona from the brief instances she shared with them, even as they remain unaware of her death.

Until the end, Mona’s past remains unclear. She used to work as a secretary in Paris, but she gave it up to escape the constraints of normal life. When the tree researcher asks her why she did it, she answers, “Champagne on the road’s better.” The goat farmer has a different opinion. “That’s not wandering,” he says. “That’s withering.” Mona’s standpoint proves difficult to pin down. She seems to exhibit a fatalistic attitude towards life. It is never explicitly stated, but perhaps she acts the way she does because she sees the pointlessness of life, in a manner easily mistaken for laziness. From the outside, it certainly looks that way.

In her wanderings Mona meets many people, mostly other travelers, but she never lingers long enough to form a lasting bond with them. Always, she journeys alone. The film makes repeated references to how each person has his own road to travel. Companions come and go, but what separates us stays longer than anything else. In the end, solitude remains. And what we leave behind amounts to nothing more than a few wisps of memory. We are reduced to fragments, are easily dispersed by a gust of wind. Time passes, and the world moves on.

‘I know little about her myself, but it seems to me that she came from the sea.’

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

This is philosophy? Are you kidding me? Well, yes, actually—that’s the whole point. A product of Harvard education and everyday inspiration, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar proposes the unlikely combination of intellectual sobriety and vaudeville humor. Explains authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, “…philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, a gagster calls a zinger.” Ingenious, isn’t it?

Spanning centuries of philosophical history, this little orange book (lent to me by DA) contains ten different schools of thought within its beautifully laid out pages. In tackling each discipline, the authors introduce you to various philosophers’ takes on the issue at hand. So under existentialism, you have Hegel espousing a distant perspective of the world, Kierkegaard arguing for the anxiety of the individual, and Heidegger asserting that for anyone to live authentically, he must first be aware of his own mortality—and the constant possibility of death. For six pages, that’s some heavy stuff. But whether it be about existence, knowledge, or morals, each chapter also comes with an arsenal of jokes to keep you sufficiently non-depressed. In this book, hardly a page goes by without at least one joke. Some miss the mark, but a number are genuinely funny, capable of eliciting a hearty chuckle. (Sometimes though I have to reread a joke several times to understand the philosophy behind it, but maybe that’s just me overthinking.)

Like any good joke book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar gets better as you keep reading. Problem is, pages fly by so quickly you hardly retain anything afterwards. The concept of reductio ad absurdum, for example, slipped past me completely: fifty pages after the book first mentioned it, I had to look it up again. I don’t count this against the book though, which I think wasn’t really meant to transform its reader into a philosophy whiz in the first place. It works as a light reference text, as introduction; and here it succeeds. It gets you interested enough to look past the jokes and check out real philosophy books—where, naturally, the real fun begins.

‘Hey, the other day Plato and a platypus walked into a bar. The bartender gave the philosopher a quizzical look, and Plato said, “What can I say? She looked better in the cave.”’

À Nos Amours (1983)

The 2011 French Film Festival had its final run last week at the UP Film Institute. Free screenings! Of course I was there: Thursday afternoon, with Sarah; Saturday, with Danica. Featured actress Sandrine Bonnaire stars in both films I watched, À Nos Amours and Vagabond. This year’s festival devoted a significant portion of its line-up to her. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to watch more.

True to its title, this movie revolves around the many loves of Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), a young girl both attractive and adventurous. Her story begins at a summer camp, where she loses her virginity to an American soldier at the age of fifteen. After her boyfriend Luc breaks up with her, she plunges headlong into a series of flings and sexual adventures, to her mother’s horror and her brother’s violent disapproval. Casual relationships characterize the next years of Suzanne’s life, which she spends in a careless pursuit of happiness amidst family troubles and the unexpected return of old lovers.

On the surface, it seems Suzanne’s frustrations emanate from a fixation on love, or at least affection. Acknowledging that she did love Luc, she wonders if it only happens once in a lifetime. What if she never falls in love again? But when Luc approaches her after their breakup (twice, in fact), she rejects him in the most painful of ways. “I don’t want to always hurt people,” she says, but in the end it is what she does. Violence figures prominently in this film, and not only in the physical sense. Relationships offer a lot of room for violence, and sometimes it is these accidental pains we inflict on each other that resist healing the most.

Of course all this is mere speculation. At least on screen, Suzanne’s life rolls on an unspecified timeline. Scenes change abruptly, leaving it up to the viewer to piece together haphazard clues. Most of the time we see Suzanne bored, dabbling in boarding school and marriage as if only to rid herself of ennui. Likewise, the film itself doesn’t lead anywhere. The ending, especially, leaves you with a vague feeling of discontent. Intentional? I like to think so. Perhaps the point is exactly that, how rarely any of us find satisfaction, how—inevitably, after a brush with love—human lives branch off in separate directions, forever in search of the next possible happiness.

‘Don’t you think one can die of love?’

‘There’ll always be sadness.’