The original question

The question of how the Universe began is to me the biggest question of our lives. It is something that puzzles us, astounds us, makes us spend hours pondering, debating with people around, mostly pointlessly. Because we cannot answer this sitting in the drawing room. (Though it is strange that a question of that magnitude cannot be answered through field studies – the answer, if at all, will come out of a drawing board or a computer someday) It inevitably runs into the question of belief – whether God or a supreme being exists, one that made the grand design, or whether it all came into existence out of nowhere, through some yet undiscovered scientific phenomenon.

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Dreamtigers (Borges)

For at least a couple of years, I have been lazily hunting for Borges’ Ficciones. I believe it was a reference in Alejandro Zambra’s brilliant work Bonsai that triggered this search, something about a story that was so fantastic yet so touching.

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Wallander – the troubled detective

Kurt Wallander is a grim man. Whether you meet him in books, or in the TV series, you will seldom see him (or read about him) smile. Both Branagh & Henriksson, who have played him in the English & the Swedish series, know this well. In fact, Branagh has even admitted to visiting flower shows to cheer himself up from the starkness of his screen life.

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This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am sometimes embarassed of my interest in holocaust literature. There is something morbid about wanting to read the tales of death chambers, of cattle cars, of people being pulled out of their homes in middle of the night.
And yet, it is such a bizarre side of reality – something so humongous and beyond understanding, that I feel compelled to know more, to understand what happened. The many books and many films on the topic mostly share the survivor tales, or tales of tragedy – the after-effects of the holocaust (or more appropriately “Shoah”). These tales, the most beautifully written ones, like from Sebald, or Kertesz – bring to fore the sense of loss, the disorientation, which goes far beyond the actual physical act of mass-murder. But there is little written or said to explain the perpetration, what went on in the minds of the tormentor and the tortured when the physical act was being carried out. How did a whole machinery get convinced to participate in the barbarism? What went on in the minds of people in the camps, seeing the fumes from the chimney?

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Incidentally, all of my last few posts have been based on the readings from SF and Fantasy course on Coursera. Things are a little hectic in work and in life otherwise, that I am reading little outside of the course syllabus. The course is coming to a close, and as insightful as it has been, I am also eager to resume my regular reading.
A couple of weeks back, we were reading Charlotte Gilman’s Herland and Burroughs’ Princess of Mars. The two books could not be more different, and yet there were some common threads running between them. While Princess of Mars was a dominantly ‘masculine’ book – with heroes, fights and men saving damsels, Herland was feminine, even if not in the traditional sense of the world.

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Wells and Freud

I have very little exposure to psychology and even lesser understanding of the various theories/advancements in the field. However, even in this limited knowledge it is difficult to not come across Freud and his structural model. There is a certain fascination in the idea of the psyche having three distinct identities fighting for control.
While reading Wells’ story The island of Dr. Moreau, as part of the SF and Fantasy course on Coursera, I sensed that Wells was elucidating Freud’s theories. On some research I found that they did have an acquaintance, a mutual respect for each other’s ideas and exchanged some of their thoughts/ideas through letters. For the course I wrote this essay. Luckily, one of my reviewers was a psychologist who pointed out that I had missed one essential point, which follows the essay:

Super-ego versus Id

 In The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells touches on many interesting themes in few words. One theme that we have repeatedly seen in our readings is the danger of man trying to play God or interfering with nature. In this story, Wells adds another dimension to the man versus nature conflict, which is whether a code of moral values is more powerful than natural instinct.

In his structural model, Freud identified Id as the uncoordinated instinct and Super-ego as the critical and moralizing aspect of the psyche. The third element, Ego, tries to find a balance between the two. Wells’ story depicts the conflict of Super-ego and Id without the presence of a strong ego. On the island, the beast folk are shown as instinctual creatures(Id) who are controlled by the law or Dr. Moreau (Super-ego). 

In the initial part of the story, it is the super-ego which is stronger. Dr. Moreau, banishes all natural instincts (not to suck up drink, eat fish or flesh, etc.), and uses punishment to silence the Id. The beast folk are scared and curb most natural instincts. This creates an imbalance, which Prendick as an outsider is able to perceive as threat. It is interesting that in this phase Prendick is more scared of Dr. Moreau than the beasts. 

In the second part, the Id takes over when the beast (Puma) escapes and attacks the super-ego. In the Reversion, beast folks begin protesting against decency and monogamy and fall back into disorganization and chaos. In this environment too, Prendick feels threatened, though this time it is the bestiality which scares him. In both cases, the absence of Ego can be seen as a destabilising factor. It seems that Wells concurs with the views of his contemporary Freud that for a psyche to function well, Ego should be its strongest element.

This is what my reviewer pointed out: “The only point I think you’ve missed is rationalizing the absence of the Ego. The Ego is based on the reality principle and it’s absence could signify a suspension of reality denoted by an isolated island.” 
I cannot claim that I fully understand the critique as I dont understand the relationship between Ego and Reality principal very well, but I am working on it.

The old monsters

As part of the SF and fantasy course I mentioned in my last post,  the last few weeks I have been reading Dracula, Frankenstein and some stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe. It is difficult to say if I am enjoying these reads. Dracula was interesting, but having read that story a few times, the last part seemed like a dull load. Frankenstein was unappetizing from the very beginning – the romanticism of the writing, the flowery language, the grandiose descriptions – they all seemed like monsters of their own.
I could not help thinking how uni-dimensional the characters in these books were – take Dracula for example. The black and white characters in it are clearly marked. Except for the mad-man, everyone is singularly good or evil. The story seemed like a preaching sometimes, extolling Victorian virtues.  Here is the little essay I wrote for the reading

The atmospheric work from Bram Stroker reads like a Biblical tale in a modern setting. With use of modern symbols and interesting art forms (journals, multiple narratives, mystery), Stroker attempts to deliver key themes of Christanity to a modern audience who might feel disconnected from the ancient stories.
The strongest Biblical symbol is Dracula, shown as a metaphor for Satan and described both as tempter and deceiver who uses people’s weakness in order to deflect them from the path of good. This can be seen in how he entices Renfield by falsely promising him eternal life, convincing him to let him enter the hospital. He (with other vampires) fosters sinful desires: Jonathan Harker is tempted by the three women in Dracula’s castle, while Lucy calls out to Arthur in a voluptuous voice to kiss her, before her fall.
Like in the Bible, Bram Stroker illustrates that Dracula’s temptations can be resisted by being alert, by prayer and by relying on God’s faithfulness. In the story, characters struggle to stay awake; many a tragedies occur while they are asleep or in trance. Dr Van Helsing strongly advocates keeping a crucifix on person when in proximity of Dracula. This crucifix, a symbol of God, saves the party from harm. Mina constantly resorts to prayer, never wavers in her faith, and is thus saved from the influence of Satan.
Stroker’s technique is very similar to the technique of Biblical story-telling in modern theatre – perhaps an influence from his theatre background. He tries to internalize the story for his audience by keeping the script simple, breaking up the story into scenes or chapters, keeping fixed locations (the castle, Whitby, hospital), and tracking the emotional journey of the characters. This keeps the reader interested and imprints the Biblical teaching of virtue over desire very vividly in his mind.

Reading Frankenstein was even more difficult, but there was a singular anxiety that is reflected in that writing – the anxiety of being alone. Perhaps it stemmed from the isolated environment Mary Shelly was when she first wrote the story. My somewhat formed thoughts on this which I presented as an essay:
Alienation appears as a dominant theme in Mary Shelly’s novel. The three narrators- Walton, Frankenstein and the monster, are all disconnected from the society around them and experience angst on account of this alienation. This alienation mirrors the feelings of the 19th century European society which was witnessing rapid industrialization.
Before Industrialization, people produced for self-subsistence and therefore had a direct relationship to their labour’s fruit. However, in Industrial era, because the product would belong to capitalists, workers felt alienated from their work and therefore not in control of their lives. Frankenstein’s labour, though frenzied, is still dissociated from its final outcome (He never thinks about the life he is creating). Upon completion, he runs away from it. Mary Shelly has captured the worker’s estrangement with his work very succinctly through this analogy. Frankenstein, like Walton and like the modern man, spends a lot of time away from his family and natural surroundings to pursue secondary relationships with his work. They all work in alien environments (a cottage, aboard a ship, a factory). Their isolation causes them anxiety and dissatisfaction with life.
The monster’s alienation is of a different nature, but still relates to the working man. He feels powerless to do what he would like to do: find friends and lead a peaceful life. He finds “human senses as insurmountable barriers” to achieving his natural state. He struggles against this powerlessness and seeks revenge. The working man similarly feels powerless to determine his fate, which is increasingly dependent on the decisions of the capitalist. He either submits to this power and feels unhappy, or adopts unlawful means (robbery, thieving, murder) to protest and regain his lost power.
With her theme, Mary Shelly seems to endorse the Romantic view that Science, Modernization and Industrialization have created antagonism in human nature.