Sunday, 4 November 2012


It never ceases to amaze me just how out of their way people go to make a point. In this case, the person was a girl I bumped into two days ago, and the point was sending a message to me: Fuck off, I'm not interested.

The girl in question was someone who I'd always thought was cute; she would inevitably end up in the dining hall when I was eating last year, but she was always surrounded by friends, so I never really got the chance to speak with her. Now on Halloween, she ended up at the pre-drink that I was at, surrounded as usual by her gaggle of friends, and I genuinely didn't even think about introducing myself; I hadn't seen her in months, and was busy catching up with some of my buddies. On our way to the club, we ended up walking in the same little group because we were on the same guestlist, and I finally, unexpectedly, got to shake her hand and find out her name. This was promising. Long story short, we ended up dancing together at the club for a little bit; her friends then decided to, inexplicably, swoop in and save her from me. I didn't, and still don't, understand why: these girls were my friends too--my frosh leaders in fact. Anyway, that was that, and when I went to try my luck again, I was cold-shouldered; in hindsight, that was probably not the smartest move on my part. So I left the club that night with a slighly bruised ego, but glad that she at least knew I existed.

Last night, I was invited to a house party by a friend from res last year. I accepted gladly; I'd had a rough couple of weeks at school and needed a break. The girl from the club turned out to be at the house; I think she lived there too, but I never got to find out for sure. See, the previous night, I'd sent her a friend request, and she didn't respond. I didn't think too much about it, but I guess between that and the fact that I second-attempted at the club, she figured I was trying to start something. Now I hadn't made any moves or anything that night; I was chilling with a few friends in one of the upstairs rooms, when she walked in. Seeing me there, she grabbed one of her guy friends, looked straight at me, and kissed him. The guy was just as perplexed as I was; I was literally 10 feet away from them, so I had no trouble reading her lips, "There's this guy here...." "Huh? Where?" "He's right here." Subtle.

My friends dipped soon after that, and I left with them; what was the point of staying any longer? During my long walk back, I thought about what had just transpired. What leads people to drive other people away so easily, to be so guarded about letting people into their lives? Is it really that difficult to give somebody a shot at making a good impression? The only thing the we knew about each other were our names; for all she knew, we could have everything in common, for all I knew, we could have had absolutely nothing to speak about. There was no way to find out unless one of us took the first step, and the other opened up. In this case, the responsibility of letting the other in had fallen on her, and she sent across to me, quite emphatically, that I was to stay the fuck away. Again, for all I know that guy could have been her boyfriend, and she was just being a good girlfriend, but that still doesn't explain why she would jump to conclusions so quickly about me. In the best worst-case-scenario for me, I would've made a friend; in the best worst-case-scenario for her, I would've made an ass of myself and she wouldn't have to feel bad about turning me away after that. The ball was in her court last night though, and she made the call for both of us.

So it seems that at the end of the day, you really only do get one shot at a lot of things in life; I kinda, sorta, blew this one, and even though she probably doesn't fully appreciate it, she did too.


Monday, 29 October 2012

I think I just failed an exam...

What a cheery title for my first actual post in months. Why am I writing about this when I didn't write abut any of the wonderful events that have transpiried during this same period? I guess because writing has always been my favourite form of venting, and Lord knows I need to vent now. 

I could tell you about all the things that went wrong that week, but I won't because none of these matter. I could tell you about the fact that I did really well on every single assignment leading up to the midterm, and that I'm as shocked as the next person that my TA was so repulsed by my answers, but I won't. And if you're expecting me to go off on a tangent about how I fundamentally disagree with exams because they try to quantify something that can't be quantified, you'll be disappointed because I'm not going to: in fact, I think exams are as good a way as any of trying to gauge how well someone has grapsed the course material.

What I am going to tell you though, is that this hurts: it hurts far more than I thought that something like this would. Maybe it's because this is the first exam that I've ever failed. Maybe it's because I knew exactly what I'd done wrong literally 20 seconds after I handed the test in, or it could be any of the many, many other reasons I feel like I have a tennis ball stuck in my throat.  Maybe it's none (or all) of these; the wound is too fresh for me to tell you. But I do know that through the swirling shitstorm of feelings that are threatening to burst my chest open, one hurts the most: I choked, and I don't know why. 


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Charles Taylor's "Pragmatic Contradiction of Liberalism"

This essay will focus on the “pragmatic contradiction of liberalism” as outlined by Charles Taylor in the excerpt from Multiculturism in our textbook, and will attempt to defend Steven Rockefeller1 and Michael Walzer’s2 proposed answer to this problem. I will therefore strive to show that the law in liberal democratic societies must not be either difference-blind or sensitive, but both in a certain precise sense that will be expounded on below. The essay proceeds in three stages. First, drawing primarily from Taylor, the problem faced by liberalism is summarised. Second, Rockefeller’s observations are presented; Walzer builds on these, and his arguments will form the final step.
            Taylor begins his discourse of the politics of equal recognition by considering two major changes that have taken place in Western society, the first of which is the move from a culture of honour to one of dignity. This brought with it the politics of universalism; Taylor refers to it as “the politics of equal dignity.” Universalism emphasises the equal dignity of citizens, and the political fulfilment of this has been in the equalisation of rights and entitlements. He notes that universalism is so appealing, that even persons who wished to deny African Americans voting rights all those years ago, did so under pretexts consistent with this philosophy.
            The second change is the development of the notion of identity, and it has given rise to what Taylor calls “the politics of difference”. Though the notion that every person has a unique identity follows from universalism, its ramifications in the political sphere are different. While the politics of equal dignity requires “an identical basket of rights and immunities” for each person, the politics of difference requires recognition of the uniqueness, the distinctness of each individual; the lumping together of this unique identity with that of the majority group is the “cardinal sin”, as it were, against the idea of authenticity.
            He notes that the politics of dignity clearly has an “entry point” into the politics of difference as on the most basic level, both are concerned with the denunciation of discrimination on any grounds—this is equality in its most fundamental form. A closer examination however, reveals that their interests do not align much further than that; as Taylor says, “The universal demand powers an acknowledgement of the specificity.” In other words, distinct minority groups do exist in our society, and hence the politics of equal dignity is fighting to protect something that really isn’t universally present in the first place. This problem is two-sided however: the politics of difference, in the name of recognising the identity of each human being, often discriminates by providing differential treatment to certain groups.
            While this disconcerting difference of interests might be explained away in the case of groups that have been subject historically to discrimination—here differential treatment is due as recompense, and to raise these groups up to the level that the rest of society enjoys—the seriousness of the divergence becomes apparent when laws that uphold or cherish distinctness on the grounds that one’s culture (for instance) is fundamentally intertwined with one’s identity are considered.
            One way to explain this difference, Taylor proposes, is to consider the underlying intuitions of each value. The politics of dignity is based on the idea that all humans are equally worthy of respect, which in turn can be based on the concept of the universal human potential. It is this potential itself, rather than what a man may choose to make of it, that is worthy of respect. The politics of difference however, has a different sort of potential at its core: here, it is the potential to form and define one’s own identity as an individual, and as a culture. But the main point of contention that the politics of difference has with the politics of identity is illustrated with the Saul Bellow quote, “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him;” this remark seems to deny the very principle of equality among cultures. As Taylor says, “The possibility that the Zulus, while having the same potential for culture formation as anyone else, might nevertheless have come up with a culture that is less valuable than others [should be] ruled out from the start.” In other words, the politics of dignity seems to go beyond an acknowledgement of the equal potential of humans and cultures, and places value on what they have made of this potential.
We can here sum up the disagreement: the politics of dignity claims that the politics of difference violates the principle of non-discrimination, while the latter reproaches the former of negating identity and “forcing people into a homogenous mold”. But the complaint that the politics of difference has against the politics of dignity goes even further than that: the “mold” is in fact a reflection of the dominant culture at the time, and it is only “minority groups and supressed cultures that are forced to take alien form.” Therefore the so-called difference-blind society is itself highly discriminatory. Taylor recognises the seriousness of the complaints from both sides and hence does not attempt to provide simple answers where none exist. To further the discussion then, we turn to Rockefeller’s observations on Taylor’s essay.
His main aim is to deepen the politics—and ethics—of equal dignity so that it can make meaningful contact with the politics of recognition, and he undertakes this by examining the politics of dignity in light of (1) the values of liberal democracy, (2) the environmental movement and (3) the religious dimension of experience. He additionally attempts to show that though the politics of difference has a place in liberal democracies, in its extreme form it “threatens to subvert the ideals of universal freedom and inclusive community”.
Firstly from the point of view of democracy, a person’s ethnic or cultural identity is not his primary identity—this is inherent in the above discussion, but Rockefeller makes it explicit. A person claims equal recognition under the law on the basis of his universal human identity and potential. In other words, he notes that Taylor’s argument that human potential is at the center of the politics of dignity at the very least relegates a lower position to the potential to define one’s own identity, particularly culturally, which is at the center of the politics of difference. This is not a mere difference of opinion as to what is “more important” to each of these strands of politics within a liberal democracy; it is rather a question of what is more important to a liberal democracy itself: “To elevate ethnic identity, which is secondary, to a position equal in significance to, or above, a person’s universal identity is to weaken the foundations of liberalism and to open the door to intolerance.” Though this may seem like a rewording of the main contention that the politics of difference has against the politics of dignity, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact not. Here he is arguing that the objective of a liberal democratic culture is to respect ethnic identities and to encourage different cultural traditions to develop fully their potential for expression of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, “leading in most cases to major cultural transformations [my emphasis].”
He agrees with John Dewey then, that liberalism is the expression of a distinct moral faith and way of life3. One can realise this “good life…by living with a liberal spirit, showing equal respect to all citizens, preserving an open mind, practicing intolerance, cultivating a sympathetic interest in the needs and struggles of others, imagining new possibilities, protecting basic human rights and freedoms, solving problems with the method of intelligence in a nonviolent atmosphere pervaded by a spirit of cooperation.” Liberal democracy, understood in this way, is first and foremost a way of individual life, and its moral meaning is realised when institutions become instruments of human growth and liberation.
Thus “when a liberal society faces the question of granting special privileges, immunities, and political autonomy to one cultural group…it cannot compromise on fundamental human rights.” The liberal democratic ideal is opposed to the rigid idea of cultural survival, and instead calls for the moulding of values according to the ideals of freedom and equality, among others that democracy upholds—“cross-cultural dialogue that transforms human understanding” deserves a special mention here. So if a culture is so preoccupied with its own protection and growth that it wishes the law to make exceptions in its favour at the expense of another culture’s—or individual’s—freedom, it is operating contrary to the very spirit of democracy that it wishes to be a part of.
The environmental movement is used by Rockefeller to demonstrate how a politics of equality might arise from a concern with the preservation of diversity—he attempting to go deeper than the “entry point” discussed above. Like multiculturalists, environmentalists wish to further the appreciation of the distinctness of different forms of life, and by extension, campaign for moral and legal rights of oppressed “groups”. Both philosophies attack hierarchal modes of thought; cultural on the one hand, biological on the other. It can further be argued that cultures are like life-forms; organic and evolutionary. “Each, in its own distinct fashion, reveals the way the creative energy of the universe, working through human nature in interaction with a distinct environment, has come into a larger focus,” Rockefeller says; disease and disintegration are part of evolution, and can hence be accounted for in this framework. Therefore, the multiculturalist contends, all cultures must be treated equally. Closer scrutiny however, reveals that inherent in this claim is the knowledge that cultures are in fact not equal; akin to the notion “to honour everyone is to honour no one”, if all cultures were indeed equal, equal treatment would be a non-issue. Nonetheless, the “biocentric” view—that each culture is unique and hence worthy of respect—is clearly not mutually exclusive from the observation that cultures may not be equal; each has its place in a democracy. To give a concrete example, in the issue of whether textbooks in certain American schools should be rewritten to highlight the histories of particular ethnicities, Rockefeller holds that what is needed is a “new, deeper appreciation of the ethnic histories of the American people, not a reduction of American histories to ethnic histories.” The two views presented above can in fact coexist if the deeper ideals of liberal democracy are adhered to.
The idea of the equal worth of different cultures, Rockefeller goes on, may also be grounded in religious experience; all the arguments that are presented thus far for the equal value of human identity reflect Biblical and classical Greek notions “that there is something sacred about human personality.” But religious perspectives bring heavy implications, as Rockefeller notes eloquently: “[Religion is] opposed to anthropocentrism as well as to all egoisms of class, race, or culture. It calls for an attitude of humility. It encourages a respect for, and pride in, one’s own identity only insofar as such respect and pride grow out of a recognition of the value of the uniqueness in the identity of all other peoples and life forms.”
Building on Rockefeller’s observations, Walzer begins by sharpening the distinction between the two kinds of liberalism that lay immanent in both Taylor’s and Rockefeller’s essay—he calls them Liberalism 1 and 2. Liberalism 1 is committed in the strongest possible sense to individual rights, and by extension, to neutrality. This state has no cultural or religious projects beyond ensuring safety and guaranteeing freedom for its citizens. Liberalism 2 allows for a state to pass laws that encourage the flourishing of one culture, as long as the rights and freedoms of members of society who do not belong to that culture are respected. However, Liberalism 1 can be chosen within Liberalism 2, since the latter presents several options, and one of those is Liberalism 1. This is the option that Walzer himself—quite rightly in my opinion—would choose. It is important to note that he is speaking here primarily of Western democratic societies with immigrant populations and minorities, like Canada and the United States. Walzer reasons, “[Immigrants to societies like this one] intended for, and prepared to, take certain cultural risks when they came here and left the certainties of their old way of life behind…The communities they have created here are different from those they knew before precisely in this sense, that they are adapted to, and shaped significantly by, the liberal idea of individual rights.” So in the United States—and to some extent Canada—cultural groups are left free to fend for themselves, and do not rely on the state for support or recognition of their particular projects, and this is precisely because this is the path that has been chosen through the democratic process and actual life choices of the men and women in these groups. So to frame it in the words of the question that we started with, in a Western liberal democracy committed to equality, law should be difference-blind from within the framework of being difference-sensitive.
We close with the consideration of language laws in Quebec. Do they fit the principles of liberal democracy just discussed? I agree with Taylor and Walzer, who argue that they do. This is a case where Liberalism 2 has taken precedence over Liberalism 1, and this is precisely because democracy gives Quebeckers this power. Quebec is a society with collective goals, and the government sees fit that these goals are given the force of law. Since no fundamental rights of individuals are infringed on, laws encouraging the flourishing of French Canadian culture are completely acceptable by the standards that we have discussed above—recall that Liberalism 1 is merely one option among several that Liberalism 2 presents. What about minority groups in the United States? Walzer notes, “What would the state have to do to guarantee or even to begin to guarantee the survival of all the minorities that make up American society? The various minority groups would need control over public monies, segregated or partially segregated schools, employment quotas that encouraged people to register with this or that group…” Clearly in this case, because of the sheer number of disparate voices calling out for recognition, the people have chosen Liberalism 1 from within Liberalism 2, as we noted above, and this is also in line with the principles of liberal democracy.


1 Steven Rockefeller, “Comment” in Multiculturalism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 87-98.

2 Ibid. 99-103

3 Rockefeller references John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us,” in Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1935, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 14: 224-30

A Discussion of the Music in "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is an animated adventure movie directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the immensely popular series of books (some 200 million copies in 50 languages have been sold worldwide1) of the same name created by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), who wrote under the pen name of Hergé.  The Academy Award-nominated score for this film was composed and conducted by the legendary John Williams, and is his 25th feature film collaboration with Spielberg2. This essay will focus on his music for this film—particularly on his extensive use of leitmotifs—and will compare it to his scores in other Spielberg movies.
The film is based on three of the original comic books: The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham's Treasure (1944)1. It was the first-ever animated film for both Spielberg and Williams. A brief synopsis of the plot is laid out here, to give the music that is discussed below context:
Tintin, a young journalist, and his dog Snowy are browsing in an outdoor market in a European town. Tintin buys a model of a three-masted sailing ship, the Unicorn, on the cheap, but is then immediately accosted by the sinister Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, and the mysterious figure of Barnaby, who both try to buy the model from Tintin, without success. Tintin takes the ship home, but it is broken during a fight between Snowy and a neighbour's cat. As it breaks, a parchment scroll slips out of the ship's mast. Snowy spots it but is unable to alert Tintin. Meanwhile, incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson are on the trail of a pickpocket, Aristides Silk. Tintin then visits Sakharine in Marlinspike Hall, where he learns that there are at least two model ships. Tintin finds the scroll when he goes home, and puts it in his wallet, which is then stolen by Silk.
Later, Tintin is shot at, then abducted by accomplices of Sakharine, and imprisoned on the SS Karaboudjan. On board, Tintin escapes and meets the ship's captain, Haddock who is permanently drunk, and doesn't know what's happening on board his ship. Tintin, Haddock and Snowy eventually escape from the Karaboudjan in a lifeboat. Sakharine sends a seaplane to find them, but Tintin is able to capture the plane, and fly towards the (fictitious) Moroccan port of Bagghar. They crash in the desert.
Dehydrated in the heat, and suffering from a sudden lack of alcohol, Haddock hallucinates, and starts to remember stories about his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, who was captain of the Unicorn during the 17th century. Sir Francis' treasure-laden ship was attacked by a pirate ship, led by the masked Red Rackham, and after a fierce battle and eventual surrender, Sir Francis chose to sink the Unicorn, and most of the treasure, rather than allow it to fall into Rackham's hands. It transpires that there were three models of the Unicorn, each containing a scroll. Together, the scrolls will reveal the location of the sunken Unicorn, and its treasure.
In Bagghar, Tintin and the Captain find out that the third model ship is in the possession of the wealthy Omar Ben Salaad, but it is encased in a bullet-proof glass display case. Sakharine's plan is to stage a concert involving famous diva Bianca Castafiore, the "Milanese nightingale", whose penetrating singing voice will be able to shatter the glass case, allowing Sakharine's trained hawk to fly down and steal the third scroll. After a chase down to the harbour, pursued by Tintin and Haddock, Sakharine finally escapes with all three scrolls. Tintin chases him back to Europe and arranges a police reception for him on the dockside. Haddock and Sakharine, who is revealed to be the descendant of Red Rackham, replay their ancestors' swashbuckling sword fight, using dockside cranes, swords, and even bottles of whiskey. Haddock is eventually victorious and Sakharine is promptly arrested by Thomson and Thompson.
With the three scrolls in their possession, Tintin and Haddock find that the indicated location is Marlinspike Hall, and that the hall had been built originally by Sir Francis Haddock. There, in the cellar, they find some of the treasure, and a clue to the location of the sunken Unicorn. Both men agree to continue the adventure1.
The entire movie was filmed using motion capture technology, at Peter Jackson’s (the producer’s) insistence3. When news of this reached fans initially, they were apprehensive, to say the least4. Upon its 3-D release however, most doubts (but not all5) were assuaged6. In the end, the motion-capture gamble paid off; the movie was a box-office success, grossing more than 370 million dollars worldwide7, paving the way for a possible trilogy8.
The score was a phenomenal hit with audience and critics alike, and was hailed as a welcome return to form for Williams following his three and a half absence from feature films9. “The colors [in Hergé’s books] seem to be almost Gauguin-like. Yellows and purples and green-reds," Williams said about his experience finding inspiration to compose this score, adding that the look of old cars and European architecture made instruments like the musette, a French accordion, seem apt for the movie's scenes of fast-paced street comedy10. The “Master of the Leitmotif” really went to work in this film, composing themes for characters and places, and criss-crossing them together in a complex tapestry. As one critic notes in his enthusiastic review of the soundtrack album,
I think I counted no less than 10 different themes…weaving in and out of exciting action riffs, gorgeous orchestrations that put you right into various locations around the world in seconds, mysterious legend-exploring passages, character-defining moments, and virtuoso concert arrangements that must have left every orchestra member desperate to catch their breath!  Balancing out everything you’d expect in a good globe-trotting adventure are moments of true comedy, thanks to the themes for Captain Haddock and the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson9.
Given the genre and plot of the movie, and its director-composer duo, comparisons between the scores of Tintin and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) seemed inevitable. These take on an almost poetic shade however, in light of the backstory to the making of Tintin8: when a review compared Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin (the books), Spielberg’s secretary bought him French-language editions, and he immediately fell in love with its art. Meanwhile, the comics' creator Hergé, who didn't like the previous live action film versions and the cartoon, became a fan of Spielberg; he "thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice". Spielberg then scheduled to meet with Hergé in 1983, but Hergé died that week. His widow decided to give Spielberg the rights. It seems almost fitting then, that several leitmotifs in the movie—particularly the one associated with the Unicorn—call to mind similar sinister-sounding cues in the Indiana Jones movie, and lend the score its darker side.
RLA aside, we hear echoes of Williams’ other collaborations with Spielberg right from the start too; the opening sequence of Tintin is visually reminiscent of the one in Catch Me If You Can (2002)—both are retro-styled 2-D animations—and Williams reinforces this similarity aurally with piano-dominated accompanying music. The nimble-fingered piano initially does a back-and-forth with a bass clarinet and a harpsichord until other synth instruments join in, and the resultant fast-paced theme has the espionage, adventure sound that was heard in the CMYC opening credits, except that it is jauntier and as a result more suited to the lighter nature of this film’s subject. It also calls to mind the haphazard, jazzy tune that Williams composed for the “Knight Bus” theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003), and some feel that this quasi-jazz sound resonates throughout the entire score11. Williams additionally manages to “Mickey Mouse” some of the action taking place on the screen in these opening credits, and as we progress through the movie, we come to realise that this simple, adaptable music also serves as Tintin’s theme, reappearing in various reimaginings as the story unfolds—we hear an orchestral take on this theme during the scene where Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy escape from the Karaboudjan, for instance. It also resurfaces when Tintin pilots the plane through the storm, and during the chase scene in Bagghar, among many other moments. What is really interesting to note however, is that Tintin’s theme is highly underplayed compared to the other leitmotifs that Williams develops throughout the course of the movie; many reviewers were puzzled by this11. I believe that the most likely explanation for this is that Williams was staying faithful to Hergé’s original character design, in which Tintin is purposely portrayed as having a neutral manner; besides serving the function of balancing the evil and silliness that surrounds him, this rendering gives the reader a chance to really slip into Tintin’s shoes and not merely follow the adventures of a strong protagonist12.
The next major theme that we are introduced to is the Unicorn theme, which ends up leaving the strongest impression on the audience. Besides being reminiscent of the darker themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it has been compared to the Buckbeak theme in Harry Potter POA11, and it is also highly suggestive of the main Harry Potter theme. It occurs repeatedly in the movie and lends an element of mystery to the score; it is eventually associated with the scrolls too. Since the leitmotif of the main protagonist is so underplayed, one could almost construe that Williams uses the Unicorn theme as the dominant theme of the movie in its place. We first hear it when Tintin spies the reflection of the model Unicorn in a mirror in the marketplace; it is played on a solo clarinet, and the sound of crashing waves and creaking wood are cleverly blended in. This theme then reappears in several scenes, solidifying its place as the main theme by the end of the movie: when Tintin researches the history of the Unicorn in the library, when he finds the second model at Marlinspike hall and then the scroll back at his own house, during his interrogation on the ship and Haddock’s hallucination in the desert—where stingers are placed at appropriate moments in the theme—and during the final revelation of the movie, to name a few obvious recurrences.
Snowy’s theme on the other hand, is a lovely, upbeat piece of music and is one of the few places in this score that Williams leans toward the music that is traditionally composed for children’s animated movies. It is infectiously playful in nature, and the quick, rising notes bring to mind the yipping of a dog9. Williams uses the orchestra and the woodwinds, particularly the flute, to great effect, and the masterful piano work underscores certain parts while dominating others. We are introduced to this theme when Snowy chases the cat at the beginning of the film, and it resurfaces when he saves Tintin from the dog at Marlinspike hall. Other noteworthy appearances of this theme include the scenes where Snowy chases Tintin’s abductors, the one where he rescues Tintin on the ship, and when he trips up Sakharine’s henchmen in the final crane-fight scene.
            Haddock’s theme is introduced when Tintin and Snowy barge into his quarters through the window after escaping Sakharine’s goons. It is a low-key brass and woodwind theme that one can immediately associate with naval captains, but it has a comical quality to it since Haddock provides the main laughs in this movie. Williams develops this theme extensively—more than any other protagonist’s theme—and it morphs to match Haddock’s change in character as the film progresses. While it starts off having a dubious quality, much like the drunken captain, by the end—particularly in the scene when all hope is lost, and Haddock provides Tintin the encouragement to go on—the leitmotif has sobered up, and takes on a warm, full character. His connection with Marlinspike hall is suggested by Williams’ music at the start of the movie, during the scene where Tintin breaks in for the first time, though only careful, repeated listenings reveal this intricacy in the composition—Williams brilliantly inverts the main melody of Haddock’s theme here, while employing the same deep woodwind instrument11. This connection is made clear in the music of the final scene however, which takes place at the same locale, and features an orchestrated version of Haddock’s leitmotif.
            It is interesting to note that while Sakharine, the antagonist, does not get his own theme, his ancestor Red Rackham does. It appears first in the fight scene between him and Sir Francis, and is played on low, menacing strings. This music returns during the final fight, when their respective ancestors pick up where they left off, as it were; we hear the Red Rackham leitmotif clearest then, when it is bequeathed to Sakharine. The theme for Sir Francis, and it seemed like Williams intended that he have one, is too deeply entrenched in the swollen Unicorn theme that dominates most of Haddock’s flashback to identify; in any case, since Haddock’s theme was so well developed, Williams didn’t need to transfer themes from Sir Francis to him. Since the fight scenes between the two generations are brilliantly mirrored, Williams by and large repeats the music played during Haddock’s flashback during the final fight scene to lend it a sense of finality. The orchestrated score that accompanied the battle on the high seas—the melody of which is played on the violin and viola while the cello and bass hammer away in the lower register9—is also played when the cranes battle, and then the swordfight scene between Haddock and Sakharine has almost exactly the same music as the one that played when their ancestors did battle on the Unicorn all those years ago. Williams does however, throw in other themes here. For instance, we hear echoes of Haddock’s theme when he ironically gains the upper hand in the sword fight by throwing bottles of alcohol at Sakharine, Tintin’s theme when he swoops in to snatch the scrolls from Sakharine’s hand, and as mentioned above, Snowy’s theme when he spills the crate.
            The bumbling Interpol agents, Thomson and Thompson, also get a theme of their own, and it is exactly what one would expect: silly, lazy jazz. This leitmotif is largely unchanged throughout the course of the movie, and reappears when the agents themselves do. A critic notes that the music calls to mind William’s score in Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) because of its “prominent accordion and clarinet usage”11.
Besides all the themes already mentioned, other musical ideas that Williams adds to already-bursting palette of sounds are themes identified with the treasure, the exotic locations—most notably Bagghar—and the “Milanese Nightingale”. He additionally employs the “mirroring” technique mentioned earlier frequently; a notable example of this is when the music that played during the escape from the Karaboudjan when the lifeboat drops, repeats during the scene where Haddock and Tintin jump from the fort window.
            Clearly then, even after all these years, the Master of the Leitmotif has not lost his touch. The score to Tintin showcases his astounding ability to take a myriad of ideas, and weave them together tightly, coherently, and beautifully. The Academy Award nomination stands testament to Williams’ monumental triumph with this amazingly complex score; at 80 years old, the man is still going strong. Yet there is a feeling that this score means something to Williams as well—indeed when reading the interviews that he gave around the time of release of this movie, one cannot help but be moved at this man’s dedication to his art, and “marvel at his ability to so intelligently annihilate his competition in the industry of film music.”11 As one reviewer elegantly observed,
[Tintin] is about discovering self-respect in the face of adversaries external and within oneself, and having the strength of character to settle those problems. That may be why Williams' underrated score is fashioned the way it is, pieces coming together in a way that's big and personal at the same moment, almost closer to the intimate style of Catch Me if You Can and Williams' introspective concert works. There is something not empty but questing in the way he treats Tintin, how questions are posed and answers are supplied by the drama of Haddock's journey to self-respect, that make this score shaded with psychological insight into how human beings communicate, and expressed with delicate unshowy but nimble motion and clean lines13.
The Maestro himself had this to say about his admirable work ethic and relationship with Spielberg over these past 4 decades,
[Spielberg is] a much younger man than I am and he will go on a lot longer than I'll be able to, but for the time being we're having a wonderful time. Time goes by so quickly…Steven and I, when we're working together we're so much in the now, in this moment. There isn't a past, there isn't a future, you're so completely absorbed and concentrated. If you do that long enough, you suddenly realize, my God, I'm 80 years old, what happened? What happened was a well-spent, focused period of time14.
The fun that these two genii have when collaborating really shone through in Tintin. We can only pray that they continue to grace us with masterworks for many more years to come.


1 "The Adventures of Tintin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 May 2007. Web. 16 June 2012.

2 “AFI'S Master Class: The Art Of Collaboration.” TCM Turner Classic Movies, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012.

3 "News Etc." Empire: pp. 20–25. June 2009. Print.

4 Mathewes-Green, Frederica “The Wonderful Adventures of Tintin.”National Review Online, 23 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012

5 Whitfield, Ed. “Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn.” The Ooh Tray—Film and Literature in Abundance, 29 October 2011. Web. 16 June 2012

6 Nathan, Ian. “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Empire Magazine, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012

7 “The Adventures of Tintin.” Box Office Mojo, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012.

8 Nepales, Ruben V. "Spielberg May Co-direct Next with Peter Jackson". Philippine Daily Inquirer, 18 May 2008. Web. 16 June 2012.

9 LeBlanc, Jason. “The Adventures of Tintin (2011)—Album Analysis #1.” John Williams Fan Network, 18 October 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.

10 Jurgensen, John. “The Last Movie Maestro.” The Wall Street Journal, 16 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.

11 “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Filmtracks, 3 November 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.

12 Walker, Andrew. “Faces of the Week.” BBC News| UK| Magazine, 16 December 2005. Web. 16 June 2012.

13 Ware, Michael. “Tintin and John Williams, an Essay on a Film about Self-Respect.” Film Score Monthly, 24 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.

14 Keegan, Rebecca. “A Blockbuster Collaboration.” Los Angeles Times, 8 Jan 2012. Web. 16 June 2012.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

At The Origin Of The Christian Claim: Essay 1

These essays are based on excerpts from the second book of Giussani's trilogy, namely, "At The Origin Of The Christian Claim". In this book, he begins to explore and discuss the idea that is at the centre of the Christian faith: Who is Jesus Christ, and what does He mean to each one of us?

“For the believer, the word ‘God’, then, coincides with that ultimate, total meaning inherent in every aspect of life, that ‘something’ of which all things ultimately are made, to which all things finally tend, in which all things are fulfilled.  In short, it is what makes life ‘worthwhile,’ gives it ‘consistency,’ ‘endurance.’”

In recent times, the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheistic Movement”, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, have, through their books and public appearances, helped spread the ideas that form the basis for much of this movement, which, ironically, is the “evangelisation” of atheism. This raises the interesting question: What would a world without God be like?

To erase God from our minds, first we must wipe all trace of religion from the face of the earth. Where ever would we start?! This means no places of worship (there go some of the most beautiful structures that man has ever built); no Bibles, Qur’ans, Tanakhs or Gitas. No families praying the grace before meals, no Muslims performing the Fajr at the crack of dawn, no baptism for babies, no circumcision of 8-day old male infants. No pilgrimages to the Holy Land, no Hajj, no Christian burial for the dead, no scattering of the ashes on the Ganges; no Christmas! Admittedly, for those to whom these practices and objects hold no meaning, we haven’t done much. However, a world without religion means that we also lose some of our greatest art, most moving literature, and deepest music; this is enough to sting even the most ardent atheist. In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more one realises that the removal of every trace of religion from the world is a task that borders on the impossible. Religion is entrenched so deeply in the past and present, that human history makes no sense without it.
If we find ourselves starting to doubt the premise of this thought experiment, this is a good thing. Let us continue anyway. Say we wake up tomorrow in such a religion-free world (with no recollection of it ever having existed, of course). How long do you think it would take before we started talking about God again? Maybe it would help to look at when talk of Him came up in the first place.

No one really knows how old religion is (animism goes back as far as 60,000 years), but we can hazard a (more than) reasonable guess and say that it’s almost as old as we are; religion has probably existed since we first learnt to think. So in our religion-free world, it would maybe take a couple of weeks for some sort of organised thought about the subject to form, but eventually, someone would say something that would set off a spark, and the cycle of religious discovery would begin anew.
The real question then, appears not to be concerned with the nature of a world without God, but is in fact along the lines of, “Why has talk of Him survived in our world for so long?”

To answer this question, we need to understand what God represents to a believer; the lines that form the subject of this essay completely and eloquently address this:

“For the believer, the word ‘God’, then, coincides with that ultimate, total meaning inherent in every aspect of life, that ‘something’ of which all things ultimately are made, to which all things finally tend, in which all things are fulfilled.  In short, it is what makes life ‘worthwhile,’ gives it ‘consistency,’ ‘endurance.’”

That’s all one needs to know to answer the above question; indeed, it is hard to add anything to these lines without sounding redundant. So to a believer, God is not just as he is often defined, i.e. the most perfect being that our intellect can come up with; His most important quality is that He is the source of life.

As a concept, this is a bit of hard leap for an unbeliever. In the first place, not only is the believer claiming the existence of this “God”, but he is confessing Him to be the essence of all things. In an atheistic framework, a God hypothesis should only be used to explain things that science cannot, like the meaning of life (Giussani notes in the first book that it is reasonable to assume that science cannot, and should not, ever come to a position where it can claim to have found the answer to such questions), or at most, to give believers in Him some semblance of hope in an otherwise meaningless existence. But why would one change the hypothesis from Creator, or even Benefactor, to this Being-that-runs-through-the-fabric-of-everything-and-gives-it-meaning? To which the believer replies, “Because this is the only hypothesis that makes any sense to me!”

This harkens back to the first book in Giussani’s trilogy, and the nature of its subject, “The Religious Sense”. If God merely played the part of The First Cause who set the universe in motion, and has since been on a permanent vacation, why does the religious sense haunt us? On the other hand, how does a God who just “makes the rules and won’t have it any other way” make any sense in our experience? When we come across the religious sense in our lives, we encounter it as something terrifying but beautiful; and the deeper we get to know this experience that is inherently tangled in our very humanity, the more we realise just how overarching, far-reaching and expansive we need “the Answer” to our question to be. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to posit a God who is not only all-powerful, but who is concerned with me in the most intimate sense; indeed, this feature of His nature is what I care about most. God is then the very reason for my existence; the reason that I breathe, and move and am. This is also why I desire to do good things, though I know not whence this desire comes from.

When we realised, however, that God was in us, and that we must hence be inherently good, we made a great mistake: with our own power, we tried to wrest the good part of ourselves away from our sin. So in His infinite goodness, The Mystery had to become incarnate among us, to tell us, in “person”, that we weren’t going to be able to figure it out; we needed Him to save us from ourselves. Enter Jesus Christ. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

What Do We Mean By “Mathematical Genius”?

“The mathematician’s best work is art, a high perfect art, as daring as the most secret dreams of imagination, clear and limpid. Mathematical genius and artistic genius touch one another”
-Gosta Mittag-Leffler 

Consider Arthur Benjamin, a self-described “mathemagician” who can perform extremely complex computations in his head, (he has computed the square of a random 5 digit number to a live audience, for example). While such feats are certainly impressive to behold, most of us would feel slight misgivings attaching the word “genius” to Arthur Benjamin based only on his computational abilities1. What about Daniel Tammet, the gifted savant, who “intuitively ‘sees’ results of calculations as synesthetic landscapes without using conscious mental effort and can ‘sense’ whether a number is prime or composite”2? Among other amazing feats that demonstrated his mathematical and linguistic prowess, he has recited pi to 22,500 decimal places from memory3. We would be tempted to label such savants as mathematical genii were it not for this little snag: when we bestow someone the prestigious title of “genius” we usually require him to achieve an insight; a flash of inspiration born of a creativity that the rest of us don’t have access to. This is why someone who can perform ridiculous calculations in his head isn’t normally called a “genius”; on the flipside, this is also why most people have no trouble calling Einstein a genius.

So what makes a mathematical genius? It would appear that the answer to this question would have something to do with the ability to look at several disconnected bits of information, and having the insight to realise that they somehow all fit together; to see a connection where most of us see nothing. Let us consider an example4:
In a world where people have never heard of chairs, suppose they stumbled across a warehouse full of them, in every conceivable shape, size, colour and make. Most people would be content to just wander around looking at these “things”, entranced by the colours and strange shapes. Now suppose a genius walks into the warehouse; (to make this a little fun) let’s call him “Steve”. As Steve looks at the objects around him, he starts to notice similarities and differences between them, and the wheels in his head start turning. In a flash of insight, he realises that they are all made to sit on. He christens them “chairs”. Immediately, he is a step ahead of everyone else in the warehouse, because now he can not only distinguish between a chair and something that is not made to sit on, but with a little imagination (and some carpentry), he can make basic chairs of his own! More than that, armed with this newfound definition of his, Steve can now start classifying chairs based on several criterions. He may look around and start noticing the differences between barstools, recliners, armchairs, rocking chairs etc. and start segregating them in terms of size, say, or weight, or functionality. Pretty soon, he has moved into quite advanced territory. He can now look at the construction of these chairs, the materials that they are made of, the ergonomics; he is limited only by his imagination and ever-burgeoning knowledge. As he gets deeper into the subject (you would be surprised at how much there is to know about chairs!5), he gets closer and closer to the final frontier; the chair as art. In one sense, Steve has come full circle; the people in the warehouse were pretty blown away by the funny objects around them, just like a casual observer looking at a Rembrandt, but to Steve, just like to someone who has spent years studying art, the chair represents so much more (though I doubt that a chair has ever stirred such emotions in anyone). It is important to note that anyone would have eventually figured out what Steve did.  Given an infinite amount of time, anyone can figure out almost anything, but there is nothing commendable, or special, about that.

Here we can finally say what we mean by “mathematical genius”. A genius is someone who can derive connections, definitions even, from a relatively small sample space.  And just like Steve could build his own chairs once he figured out what they were for, a mathematical genius, from his now higher vantage point, can look down and provide new examples of objects that fit his definition that possibly weren’t even in his sample space to begin with; and it only gets better from there. Note that the mathematical genius often regards what he does as art; indeed, this is why the best math looks beautiful even to the untrained eye.

With this definition in hand, the logical next question is: how does one get to this heightened state? The long and short of it is that we don’t conclusively know how to make a genius; indeed, there isn’t even a current scientifically precise definition of the word6. The sobering truth is that the ages old “practice makes perfect” method is what we’re left with (for the most part). On the bright side however, there are principles of smart, focused practice that us 21st century people must adhere to if we are to scale the lofty heights of genius. David Shenk, in his bestselling book “The Genius in All of Us”, makes the compelling argument that we all have the ability to do extraordinary things in any field; it just takes an incredible amount of something he calls deliberate practice7, and just a little bit of luck.

Oftentimes, the words “mathematical genius” border on the mystic in our society. We speak of the mental prowess of Gauss, Euler and Archimedes in almost hushed voices, as though they possessed intellectual gifts that we could not dream of having. In one sense this is true; but the insights that science is gaining every day into the working of our minds, speak of different times to come. Changes in education systems, an ever-increasing literacy rate8, the spread of information technology and increased access to learning resources, mean that we are getting smarter with each passing generation9. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to envision a world where ground-breaking discoveries are made every day across the wide spectrum of science, technology and even philosophy; this is our world today. If we continue progressing at this rate, there’s no telling where we might go as a race; what frontiers our minds may yet conquer. For now however, we must continue to look to the Giants of Mathematics for inspiration, guidance and strength.


1 I mean to take away nothing from this gentleman’s achievements. He is a distinguished professor who has won many awards, and currently teaches Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College [Source: Wikipedia]. He is also a great entertainer; I recommend watching his Ted talk.

2, 3 The quote, and information about the record was taken from his Wikipedia page: He is a truly fascinating, gifted individual.

4 The idea for this example, and the subsequent definition that came from it, was the product of a long discussion with a mathematician and good friend, Stephen J. Cooper. He recently wrote the book “The Mathematical Foundations of the Universe”:

5 I was amazed at the depth of information on the subject. Check out the Wikipedia page on chairs, and this link for an article on the history of chairs (yes, people have actually studied this):

6 “There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and indeed the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate.” [Source: Wikipedia]

7 I highly recommend this book. Here is a well written article about “deliberate practice”:

8 “The adult literacy rate increased by about 8 percentage points globally over the past 20 years – an increase of 6 percent for men and 10 percent for women. Progress was strong in Eastern and Southern Asia, which saw an increase of 15 percent. Western Asia’s increase was 11 percent, while Southeast Asia saw a 7 percent increase in adult literacy rates since 1990.” [Source:]

9 One manifestation of this is in “The Flynn Effect”:

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay IV

“Complete self-fulfilment, this is freedom.  Freedom, for the human being, is the possibility, the capacity, the responsibility to be fulfilled, that is to say, to reach and confront one’s destiny: it is the total aspiration for destiny.  Thus freedom is the experience of the truth of ourselves.”

This beautiful excerpt from the text arrives as a breath of fresh air towards the end of an otherwise joyless chapter in Giussani’s book, namely, “Consequences of the Unreasonable Positions”. To be fair, the chapter was intended to be about the repercussions of irrational positions before the ultimate question; it was a chapter that needed to be written and Giussani outlines these repercussions in vivid detail. These are listed out as: a break with the past, incommunicativeness and solitude, and a loss of freedom. They are all just as dreary as they sound. However, I’d like to focus on the latter part of the chapter, which I thought was extremely thought-provoking.

He begins his paragraph entitled “Loss of Freedom” by pointing out that our perceptions of most things are shaped by the common mentality of the time. Words like love, fatherhood, obedience, freedom, all these acquire meaning that is “taken from a power”, as he puts it. So we must discard this definition of what it means to be free; we have seen in earlier chapters that it is no use trying to fit our experiences into another’s mould. Where then must we start? He provides the example of the girl who in spite of not expecting it was given permission to go out with her friends; she experiences a greater freedom then, than if she knew she was going to go out anyway. Freedom therefore, is the satisfaction of a desire. Now, he says, imagine experiencing this freedom not just on week-ends or while doing our own thing, but always, wouldn’t this be a good definition for freedom? This leads us into the excerpt that is the topic of this essay. This definition of freedom as being “the capacity to reach and confront our destinies” is probably one that should feel right to most of us; after all, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) would not have died over the course of human history to defend the cheap thrill of fulfilling a desire. I use the word “cheap” here in the sense that Giussani does; the pleasure of doing what we want is only a means to an end, a pleasure that once fulfilled, fills us with disgust because it does not last. Then, circling back to the idea of freedom being a right that is granted by the state, he shows how that is also a flawed, misleading concept that reduces freedom to something that you had to be born into (as in the time of the Romans), as opposed to the noble concept of the right to achieve your full potential.

So where does this freedom, and our burning desire for it, come from? It cannot just be from the biological make-up of a man; this would lay waste to any attempts by us to define any of the words that we associate with our humanness; “freedom”, “rights”, the very word “person”. Thus we must assume that we are not just the fruit of the biology of our mother and father; we possess a direct relationship with the infinite, the source of all things. In not so many words, Giussani is laying the foundations for the argument for the existence of “the soul”. And when we look at things this way, it makes sense that the Church “in its tradition, defends the absolute value of the person, from the first instant of conception to the last moment of old age, however decrepit and useless the individual may be”. The Church is acknowledging the fact that we are not just the stuff we’re made of, we’re much more, and we know this because we feel it inside of us every time we try to put a finger on the meaning of the above words. Without the soul hypothesis, what basis do any of have for claiming to have rights? (As an aside, this is an excellent starting point into the “argument from morality” as proof for the existence of God.)

Then Giussani says the most beautiful thing I have heard in a long time, “Freedom is dependence on God.” What a lovely paradox to arrive at after all of our speculation on what freedom could be! In the same way that we are content with “receiving” our freedom from the state, when we accept that God is the source of our freedom, the natural response that we should have is to depend on him for everything! This is not slavery; this is a recognised, loving relationship with the One who moves all, who gives all. It is akin to the relationship that a small child has with his father. He depends on him for everything, but he does not see it as such. No, this dependence arises naturally, instinctively, because in the child knows that his father gives him everything. More than that, the child knows that his Dad’s primary concern is his happiness and well-being. In much the same way, if God is the source of our soul, isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to define freedom as dependence on Him?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:29-34
This verse from the Bible sums up what is probably the best part about dependence on God; your life is now not yours, it is His, and hence worry cannot come into the equation. And if there is no worry, then we can be truly free to be the best person that we can be every day, every instant, of our lives; for we are now not just living for ourselves, but for each other, and for Him. Then, “reaching and confronting our destiny” is not just a nice phrase, or wishful thinking, it is something we have been charged with. This is true freedom. This is the joy that only dependence on God can bring.

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay III (The Argument from Desire)

“Only the existence of the mystery suits the structure of the human person, which is mendicity, insatiable begging, and what corresponds to him is neither he himself nor something he gives to himself, measures, or possesses.”

The “Argument from Desire”; this is the theme running through chapter five, which is titled, “The Nature of the Religious Sense”. Starting from chapter four, Giussani has been quietly building up to this, his first big argument for the religious sense, as it were. The following excerpt is from Wikipedia’s page on the subject:

“Expressed as a syllogism, the argument for desire can be stated as:
Major premise: All innate human desires have objects that exist. By "innate" we mean those desires that are universal. The desire for food, the desire for companionship, the desire to enjoy beauty are innate desires in this sense…We feel hunger; there is such a thing as eating. We feel sexual desire; there is such a thing as sex. It would be unlikely for a race of individuals to exist who reported feeling hungry yet but did not possess food, mouths nor stomachs. For every such innate desire in human experience (save one) we can identify the object.
Minor premise: There is a desire for "we know not what" whose object cannot be identified. We are never truly satisfied…The second premise aims to articulate and appeal to the concept of "longing" as expressed by the German term “Sehnsucht”
Conclusion: If the object of this desire does not exist in this world, it must exist in another.”
Many things can be said about that excerpt. First, consider the word “Sehnsucht”. In our human experience, we come across feelings that can almost in and of themselves be called religious; in my opinion, this “Sehnsucht”, this “longing in one’s heart for one knows not what”, is right up there, eclipsed perhaps only by that mystical experience that we refer to as “love”.  We see the essence of this feeling captured in Walt Whitman's closing lines to "Song of the Universal":

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life's lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

We will return to this in a moment, for now, we turn to another aspect of the “argument from desire”: both the premises and the conclusion can be not just merely understood but “seen”, felt and experienced in a much more direct way than similar arguments for or against the religious experience. This why the argument is so appealing. This is also why Giussani chooses this argument as his starting point, and after reading his views on realism, reasonableness, and morality in the first four chapters, I can’t help but agree with him. Let me explain why.

For the moment, let us cast aside the fact that neither this, nor any of the arguments for, or against, God, has ever been proven (or disproven). Now imagine that one day, someone finally manages to construct a bullet-proof argument for God, one that establishes once and for all that He’s out there. What we want this argument to read like? Personally, I find religious debates interesting only to the point where I can internalise them and make sense of them in my daily experience; analogously, I would have trouble accepting any argument that didn’t strike me to the heart, that didn’t resonate with every fibre of my being, that didn’t move me. If we managed to reduce the unknowable, the unfathomable mystery that has haunted us since the beginning of time to a bunch of words on page, then we would be, as Giussani observes, “finished as race, with nothing left to do but kill ourselves.” It is here in the book that the idea that has been lurking in the background of all the arguments he has made thus far, finally comes to forefront. The argument is simple; the religious sense is an experience that we’re after, not some perfect proof that’s waiting to be discovered. So for me, the vivid picture that he paints of man as a beggar makes sense because it’s something I can relate to, it’s an experience that I’ve had. Maybe an illustration will help.

Recently, while listening to a beautiful song (Giussani mentions in a later chapter, “The greater the art, the more it flings wide open, does not confine desire. It is a sign of something else.”) by the Australian band “Youth Group” entitled “Forever Young”, I closed my eyes, and really tried to be transported by the music. The song is about the transience of youth, and the sorrow of growing older. As I listened to the words, I found myself reminiscing about the years gone by, the friends I hadn’t seen in ages, the moments I’d shared with loved ones, the amazing experiences that life had sent my way. The good times and the bad; the ecstasy of being in love, the pain of having my heart ripped out of my chest, the joy of reaping the fruits of my hard labour, the crushing feeling that came with knowing that there were some dreams that were never going to be mine. The impermanence of everything that I had ever done, or ever would do, dawned on me. Through it all, I found that a profound feeling of sadness was ever-present, almost overwhelming But it was a sadness tinged with hope. As the song says,

“Can you imagine when this race is run,
Turn our golden faces into the sun…”

I wanted to go home. I yearned for another place, another time, another world, and the sadness came from knowing that I wasn’t going there for a while. Long after the last strains of the music had faded, the emotions that it had stirred within me remained, and I found myself asking, begging for more. I never wanted that feeling to end; it was beautiful pain, and if that was the only way that I could feel connected to my true home, whatever or wherever that may be, then I wanted to feel that pain again.

So does the “Argument from Desire” have its flaws? Sure, but in a weird way that seems to be the point. Logic can be cold and distant sometimes, but this; this is something organic, something that we can all relate to. Giussani points out that anyone who claims to have never had a religious experience is, in not so many words, lying, and I agree. We’ve all been moved by art, be it music, literature or paintings, and the greatest art that mankind has ever produced is the kind that seems to be reaching out to something higher, something that it is aware it will never attain, but it tries nonetheless. We are pained by true beauty because it its ever-reaching nature resonates with us and reminds us of ourselves. We feel in our hearts that we are not made for this world, so isn’t it therefore “rational” to consider the existence of the religious sense, of the great mystery?

 “In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like “Nostalgia” and “Romanticism” and “Adolescence”; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. But all this is a cheat…These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Religious Sense: Essay II

In order for us to be able to discover within ourselves the existence and nature of such a crucial and decisive a factor as the religious sense, we must commit ourselves to our whole life.  This includes everything–love, study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience.  Within every single gesture lies a step toward our own destiny.”

"This force, which is the best thing in you, your highest self, will never respond to any ordinary half-hearted call, or any milk-and-water endeavor, it can only be reached by your supremest call, your supremest effort. It will respond only to the call that is backed up by the whole of you, not part of you; you must be all there in what you are trying to do. You must bring every particle of your energy, unanswerable resolution, your best efforts, your persistent industry to your task, or the best will not come out of you. You must back up your ambition by your whole nature, by unbounded enthusiasm and a determination to win which knows no failure... Only a masterly call, a masterly will, a supreme effort, intense and persistent application, can unlock the door to your inner treasure and release your highest powers." - Orison Swett Marden

Commitment. This is the challenge that Giussani lays down before us. In our search for the religious sense, surely commitment is one of the most important attributes that we must possess. And not just the commitment to finding the answers to life’s big questions, but the commitment to living out every minute with the awareness that an existential inquiry into the religious sense requires. This seems like a pretty obvious, reasonable thing to expect from someone on such a mission, but Giussani is not one to bandy words about. Maybe putting it in the context of the chapter and the book might help us better understand his motives for making such a statement.

This chapter, the fourth in the book is entitled “The Religious Sense: The Starting Point”, and it follows the first three chapters entitled “Realism”, “Reasonableness” and “The Impact of Morality” respectively. In the first three chapters, Giussani sets out to define the main tools with which a man should explore the world around him. Quoting directly from the book, “Realism…(determines that) the method by which something is approached is determined largely by the object, and is not imagined at the subjects will…”.“Reasonableness” shifted focus to the subject and his reasoning faculties, and the question of rationality. The third chapter is best summarised by the moral rule, which Giussani states as: “Love the truth of an object more than your attachments to the opinions you have already formed about it”. This completed the discussion of the initial premises. In the fourth chapter, we have our first direct brush with "the religious sense”, as it were.

The starting point is to recognise that the religious experience is just that: an experience. Hence, we must begin with ourselves in order to take in all of its essential aspects.  But what exactly does “begin with ourselves” mean? We must not fall into the trap of trying to define ourselves with our own self-images and preconceptions, which may be abstract, and “slightly” biased. Instead, we must observe ourselves in action vis-à-vis the first, second and third premises; becoming the subject and the object, fully taking in who we are from our individual daily experiences, while calling into action our reason and moral sense. This has serious implications though, he points out. Someone who claims to have never felt God is not operating using his reason; the question of God cannot be swept aside so lightly. In contrast, the man who has had no commitment to the religious dimension of his life is right in saying that it does not affect him, because after a certain point of non-involvement, it is as though it never existed for him at all. In other words, there is no middle ground when it comes to finding the truth. This brings us finally, to the paragraph in which he places the sentences that we started with. It is titled “Involvement with Life”, and he opens it with a beautiful sentence, “…the more one is involved with life, the more one also, even within a single experience, comes to know the very factors of life itself”. In today’s world, this is a message that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops.

They say change is the only constant. I think noise should be on that list too. It is ever present, and does nothing but fill us with emptiness. We read and talk and watch and listen, but still don’t know enough. We have social media that is supposed to bring us together, yet we seem to be missing out on the human experience in a big way. How can we possibly get in touch with our inner selves in the chaos that we have allowed our days to become? Our lives are passing us by, and we’re letting the most important things slip through our fingers. There’s a quote from the movie “Fight Club” that says it best, “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” 

Giussani’s message is simple. We need to watch us, to know us; to have any hope of finding the truth from the inside out. We need to be involved actively in our own lives for them to have any meaning, for us to be able to “give a ‘ten performance’”. Giussani makes it clear that discovering the meaning of life is a goal which is possible only for the individual who is involved with life seriously. This comes with a warning though. Maybe two. As humans, we have a tendency to get caught up in the minutia; becoming “overinvolved” in certain aspects, while missing out on the big picture. That sort of partial focus will drive anyone insane. Second, when Giusanni says “everything”, he means everything. If the religious sense is a fundamental experience, then it must permeate every sphere of our lives. We must commit all, and exclude nothing, if we have to discover it in its entirety. And this makes sense if you look at the flipside. If the religious sense only added and gave meaning to some areas of our lives, but didn’t completely extend to others, what sort of all-encompassing truth would that be?

So this is the balancing act we have to commit to. We must be aware of our complete daily experience in all its complexity, and from it, to try and find answers to the kind of questions that an inquiry into the religious sense poses. It is a difficult task to be sure, but what more important task could a man have than to live his life to its fullest, striving for a higher purpose at every moment? “Know thyself” said the ancient Greeks. Thousands of years later, Giussani echoes their words, urging us onwards to a life bursting with meaning and promise.